Framing Questions to Shift the Blame in the Housing Crisis

Poverty Rate Rises To 15 Year HighThe LA Times published an editorial two days ago purporting to explore why it was that the black population of many progressive/liberal cities had been declining over the last decade or so.  Aaron Renn, the author, pointed out that cities like Portland, San Francisco, and Los Angeles had extremely high “median multiples”, a figure that expresses how many times the median income the average house costs in each city. Portland’s figure of 5.1, LA’s of 8.1, and San Francisco’s of 9.4 were all much higher than most cities (a baseline expectation is 3.0–meaning that an average home would cost three times the median yearly income in that city). The conclusion was that building/zone restrictions and environmental protections, which tend to limit the supply of housing, were driving up the prices of housing in these cities.

Now, on the one hand, Renn is pointing to an obvious and incontrovertible fact. Housing prices have certainly gone up in many cities in recent years; the explosion in housing costs in San Francisco has, in particular, gotten a lot of attention. There’s no denying that this is happening and it’s a problem. But Renn offers a particular causal explanation: saying that it is progressive/liberal environmental and zoning policies that are to blame. And it’s this causal story that doesn’t hold water.

First off, let’s step away from the content of this particular discussion and note the tactics involved. This rhetorical strategy of pointing out obvious and undeniable facts but then offering a contentious and indeed wildly dubious explanation is an all-to-common one. The hope is that the reader, noting the obviousness of the facts presented, will simply assume the proposed cause is just as obvious. We should be on guard against this rhetorical maneuver.

Our suspicion should only deepen when we pay attention to who Renn is and who he works for: he’s a “senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute“, a conservative think tank. Of course, pointing out that he has an ideological bias doesn’t prove his point wrong–we all have biases and points of view. But it makes the breezy transition from confident fact to dubious cause less surprising; Renn here is, it would seem, less interested in providing technical economic advice to cities seeing adverse outcomes and more interested in pushing a specific ideological interpretation of the situation to effect policy changes.

And it’s not just that Renn’s causal explanation seems specious and ideologically-inspired–it’s that he seems to be pulling a bait-and-switch as well. Because the problem he identifies–the massive increase in housing prices in these cities–may have other causes which he would like to obscure.

First and foremost, remember that the figure he points to for evidence of the problem is the “median multiple”, which is the ratio of housing prices to income. This number will go up if the cost of housing goes up or if income effectively goes down (or stagnates). So the problem could be as much with income as it is with housing availability or prices. It’s worth noting that Renn does not discuss minimum wages, union density, or trade policy, though these are all major factors in explaining the drop in real wages over the last 40 years in this country. Again, considering his employer, this is not surprising.

Secondly, in the case of San Francisco, we also know that the explosion of Silicon Valley companies in the area, most notably Google, is also a major catalyst for the increase in housing prices. But Renn explicitly claims that a city’s being friendly to development and business will decrease rather than increase the median multiple–and again, considering his employer, this interpretation is not surprising, even though it runs into direct conflict with the facts on the ground (facts which, unlike the increase in housing prices, Renn chooses not to report here).

I think this discussion is important not only because this issue of housing availability is itself crucial, but also because this is a very clear example that how a question is framed will have a major impact on the answers an author reaches, and how those answers are received. By ignoring most of the relevant data and discussion, Renn is able to take a very real problem, offer an at-best partial explanation, and then reach a wildly specious conclusion. We need to be on guard against this sort of rhetoric–not just bad answers, but manipulative questions.

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