About a year and a half ago, the Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce released a survey touting support in Seattle for increased housing supply and residential density. I was critical of the survey because for at least two reasons. First, it lumped together responses in an unhelpful way, taking people who “somewhat support” together with people with “strongly support” the idea of building more housing in their neighborhood and second, failed to dig into responses “it depends” responses about new housing. Understanding and changing public opinion – why do people think what they think about housing – is critical to changing housing policy. A new Cato survey of public opinion makes an effort at illuminating but isn’t comprehensive enough.
The Cato Institute, among other things, is a think tank dedicated to solutions “solutions based on the principles of individual liberty, limited government, free markets.” In 2022 the organization conducted Housing Affordability National Survey asking 2,000 adults across the country questions about housing. The top line finding of the survey, the answer to the first question, unsurprisingly, is that 87% of people are “concerned about the cost of housing.” It’s worth a look at the results.
The survey has 15 questions. Questions 1 to 6 ask about concerns about housing costs, especially about buying a single-family home, and a question about whether the respondent owns or rents. Along with the 87% of respondents who said they were concerned, 76% said that now is a bad time to buy a house and in a later question 73% said buying a house isn’t possible for “average” people. The respondents favored single-family homes, with 53% answering that they are homeowners and 86% saying that in an “ideal world,” they’d rather own a home. A majority, 55%, said they could not afford to buy the home they own today.
Questions 8 are about whether the respondents’ children’s and grandchildren’s ability to buy a house in the future; the response was largely negative, with 69% answering “no” to the question.
Then questions 9-13 ask about whether respondents would favor more housing, where, and why they’d favor it. Taken together, respondents all agreed to varying degrees, from a low of 51% (favor more housing in your community) to a high level of support, 72%, for housing of all types in “your neighborhood” if it allowed young people and young families “to afford housing in your neighborhood.” The last two questions ask about preferences about typology and density, with 87% favoring single family homes over townhouses or condos and plurality, 49%, favoring less density of housing and larger homes over smaller homes “closer to each other.”
Pretty impressive numbers of support for more new housing in “my neighborhood,” right? And the survey sort of proves people love single-family homes over other typologies for themselves. The problem with Cato’s survey is the same one with Seattle’s; who is going to answer “no” to a question about an implied good in the “abstract?” That is, if you got a survey question asking “Do you want more good things for good people near you?” you’d probably answer yes. Do you want to live in a single-family home under “ideal” circumstances? Very few would say, “No.” And if you asked people, “Do you think you could buy your 20-year-old car for what you paid for it 20 years ago?” most people would answer “No.”
As I pointed out in the critique of Seattle’s Chamber poll, the “it depends” factor weighs heavily here; when a new apartment building affordable for young people is proposed a block away, people are likely to answer differently. As a page at the Pew Research Center points out about polls that show more people vote than actually do; “Voting is generally considered a socially desirable behavior, like attending church or donating money to charity. Studies suggest these kinds of behaviors are overreported.” A way to measure this is that, often, the number of “Yes” answers in a survey about voting exceeds the number of registered voters in a particularly area.
In this case, the key indicator that the Cato survey, and surveys like it, miss the mark is looking at partisan distribution on the answers to question 11c on the survey.
Some might point to the conservative support, but what’s most fascinating is the deep support from self-identified liberals. If 8 out of 10 liberals support the idea of new housing around the corner, why is difficult to build housing in every blue, coastal city? Again, asking the deeper questions like, “Would you support reducing public comment on larger apartment projects in your neighborhood?” or “Would you support a change in zoning that would allow apartment buildings on your block?” the “favor” answers would most certainly drop across all ideologies.
And we don’t need to spend time and money to find this out; anyone who has worked to build new housing in a blue city knows it’s a challenge to build there regardless of virtue signaling about being willing to support more housing in those cities. Overreporting support for density and new housing among all demographics is going to be common, but we need to surface how and why people that profess support turn into the most rabid opponents of new housing. Then we need to understand how to change open minds to embrace fewer rules at the local level to allow the market to produce more housing.
Legal challenges, lobbying, and elections wont’ change the stiff resistance to new housing at the local level. What’s needed is deeper public opinion research and sustained efforts to understand why people think what they do about housing and then develop messages that would be persuasive to change that thinking. This won’t just be a survey, but a plan to shift public opinion so people better understand how their discomfort with new housing construction and people making money at it ends up leading to policies that make life difficult for people with less money.