If I asked my neighbors in San Francisco if they’d support a policy that reduces fossil-fuel consumption, protects unspoiled wildlands, increases economic mobility, and creates more affordable housing, they would probably all say yes.
But if I told them such a policy would legalize small apartment buildings in our neighborhood of charming, million-dollar single-family homes, many of them would balk. That would make parking even harder, increase traffic, block views, bring rowdiness and crime, make our schools worse, they’d argue.
Soon, a series of proposals to increase urban density in California, Oregon, Seattle, Austin, and numerous other places will shed light on whether liberal America is willing to live according to its purported values. Neighborhoods like mine can welcome apartment buildings and their residents and be part of the solution to our society’s big collective-action problems—or they can remain as they are: fundamentally conservative spaces defined by an “I got mine” philosophy.
Much of the debate surrounding zoning proposals like this one focuses on the pressing issue of housing affordability: more units would, down the line, mean lower costs. But these ideas have much wider implications, too. Allowing a lot more people to live in the places with the most jobs, educational opportunities, and transportation options will reduce segregation and inequality, enable more people to live an environmentally friendly lifestyle, and create the kind of homes that conform to current demographic realities.