The lead article in the Sunday Review section of the New York Times looks at what can be done to improve the lives of those who live in rural or small town America and concludes: "The most helpful policy for people in small towns could be to relax zoning rules in dense cities like New York and San Francisco, so that more affordable housing could be built to receive newcomers from rural Wisconsin or Kentucky, and they wouldn't need the income of an investment banker or a computer scientist to afford to live there."
The need to de-regulate housing construction has been a long-running theme around here. This is an issue waiting for a politician to seize, or for a journalist to push the edge of by calling up politicians and putting them on the spot about why, if there's such broad consensus (as there is) that this is a good idea, it isn't happening faster. The Wall Street Journal had an article earlier this month tackling the issue in respect of the Boston suburbs, and the Globe also has an editorial.
It could be that this is one of these ideas that works better in the abstract – the economists and columnists all claim to be in favor of tall apartment buildings — than in practice, because when it comes right down to it, not many people want a tall apartment building erected in their own backyard, or on their next-door neighbor's lot, because they don't want the additional traffic, shadows, school overcrowding, construction noise, change, anticipated impact on property values. Telling someone who already spent a lot of money on a house in New York, San Francisco, or a Boston suburb that they should accept those risks to help out "newcomers from rural Wisconsin or Kentucky" is not necessarily a big political winner. There may be other ways to frame this in ways that are more politically palatable, but it seems to me that's the challenge on this issue at the moment. One possible pitch would be something like, "We can build some taller buildings in ways that won't ruin your neighborhood but will actually make it better by providing the density to support better restaurants, cafes, and stores and the tax base to support better public transportation and public schools. And if you look at other dense neighborhoods, they actually have pretty high property values, because people like the walkable amenities." That's more an appeal to self-interest than to altruism.