I’ll let you in on a dirty secret about journalism: Most of what we write — good, bad, or otherwise — is as evanescent as yesterday’s rain. Readers may get most of their news in digital form rather than paper these days, but the old adage still holds true: Today’s news is tomorrow’s fish wrap.
Every once in a while, though, writers on deadline produce something of lasting value, an insight that illuminates not just today, but the past and the future both, something that helps explain why we are where we are.
Sam Bowman, John Myers, and Ben Southwood’s article “The housing theory of everything,” published a year ago in Works in Progress, is just such a key. “Try listing every problem the Western world has at the moment,” they wrote. From Covid to slow economic growth to climate change to falling fertility, they all had one root cause in common: “A shortage of housing: too few homes being built where people want to live.”
Their argument was as simple as it was true: So long as housing supply remains constrained in the most economically productive cities in the US, so would the country’s potential. Whatever else the US wanted to do — solve climate change, reduce economic inequality, make it easier for people to have as many children as they wanted — fixing the long-running housing problem had to come first. Everything else was just hot air.
Once you begin to understand the housing theory of everything, you start to see it everywhere. Including on a small, well-heeled island off the coast of Massachusetts called Martha’s Vineyard where last week scores of migrants were shipped via jet by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis in a stunt as inhumane as it was, sadly, likely politically effective for them with many Republican voters.
Make no mistake, what DeSantis and other Republican governors like Greg Abbott of Texas are doing as they send thousands of migrants to Democratic-led cities far from the border — like some Twitter trolling done in real life, with real people — is almost entirely for their own political glory. DeSantis received a standing ovation from GOP voters at a political event in Kansas on Sunday.
If DeSantis thought that the mostly Democratic citizens of Martha’s Vineyard would respond to his stunt by treating the migrants who arrived on their island the way he would, the governor was mistaken. The migrants, who were fleeing Venezuela, received a warm welcome from locals before they were voluntarily sent onward to a military base for humanitarian support.
As the headline of a Jonathan Chait piece in New York magazine put it, “DeSantis tries to prove liberals hate immigrants as much as he does, fails.”
But if it’s clear that the people of Martha’s Vineyard or New York City or Washington, DC, don’t hate immigrants and will mobilize to welcome human beings who are innocent pawns in a political game, that doesn’t mean that they will put their weight behind the policies that are really needed to support the masses of migrants who want to come to the US for a better life.
That’s because perhaps the No. 1 thing that migrants need — and for that matter, lots of American citizens as well — is more housing in the cities that have jobs. And whatever the leaders of those mostly deep blue cities may say when DeSantis or Abbott drops a busload or planeload of migrants on their doorstep, they seem unwilling to deliver it — and too many of their constituents apparently feel the same.
In Martha’s Vineyard, the affordable housing problem is so acute that the island’s only emergency-room-equipped hospital has been operating with a quarter of its staff jobs unfilled, according to the Washington Post. When the hospital’s CEO offered 19 jobs to health care workers in January, every one of them was turned down, in large part because even doctors couldn’t afford to find a year-round place to live.
Or take New York City, which I call home and where you can often see “Refugees Are Welcome” signs in the windows of nice brownstones, side by side with fliers decrying a new development. Between 2000 and 2020, New York expanded by more than 800,000 residents, yet fewer than 450,000 new apartment units and single-family homes were built during that time. Not surprisingly, in May the median rent in Manhattan reached a record $4,000 — though if you’re willing to make do in Brooklyn, you could get by with $3,250.
And San Francisco? Well, San Francisco’s leaders seem to treat housing construction like golf, where the idea is to get the lowest score possible; community opposition and restrictive regulations mean that the city is on track to build just 3,000 housing units this year, with an average building cost that is the highest in the world per square foot. (Though somehow, San Francisco still approved more new housing units per 1,000 residents between 2010 and 2019 than New York.)
Even worse than the cities are many of the suburbs that surround them. In suburban counties from Nassau and Westchester outside New York to the commuter towns surrounding Boston, even fewer housing units were added per 1,000 residents in the previous decade than in New York City itself. That in turn pushes low-income residents farther and farther away from jobs, putting further weight on economic growth.
As “The housing theory of everything” put it, even as everything from TVs to cars to refrigerators have become cheaper to buy on an hours-worked basis over the past 50 years, housing in major cities has become much, much more expensive. As a result, people who weren’t lucky or privileged enough to buy at the right moment are forced to spend more and more of their household budget if they want to live in a New York or a Boston or a San Francisco.
It’s true that the US does face a border crisis. An average of 8,500 migrants and asylum-seekers are intersecting with officials each day, what Axios termed a “strikingly high number,” and cities along the border are struggling to deal with the flow.
It’s also true that people will keep coming. Between economic factors, the pressure of climate change, and the drive for safety, the flow of migrants from the south is only likely to increase in the years and decades ahead.
Republican officials have their own solution to that challenge: attempt to stop the flow at the border by the harshest methods possible, and make political hay while doing so. If progressives want to live up to their rhetoric, they need to support the policies that will build the housing supply needed to absorb the flow of newcomers — and in doing so, help reduce the extreme costs of living that hamper longtime residents as well.
Otherwise, refugees and migrants may be welcomed — but they won’t be welcome to stay.
A version of this story was initially published in the Future Perfect newsletter. Sign up here to subscribe!