Democracy and the Challenge of Affordability: Transatlantic Trends in Housing

This post kicks off a second round of blog postings that explore affordable housing as a challenge to the health of democracy in cities and major urban areas. These new posts — three interviews exploring the political trajectories of affordable housing in London, Paris, and New York — are edited by Harvard Kennedy School Assistant Professor of Public Policy Quinton Mayne, who also writes the introductory post below.

By Quinton Mayne

Many parts of the United States are in the grip of a housing crisis, with thousands of families unable to afford a home of their own. Though the form of this affordability crisis, and the types of Americans it affects, varies from city to city, the auction this month of 25,000 properties in Greater Detroit–the largest municipal foreclosure sale in U.S. history–is symptomatic of the depth of the structural infirmity that afflicts the U.S. more broadly. That being said, the United States is certainly not the only advanced industrial democracy unable to respond to public demands for affordable housing.

In a previous eight-part series, we examined the challenge of affordable housing from the perspective of a range of local actors and organizations in the United States, including public officials, non-profits, and documentary film makers. In the next three posts, we turn our attention to the challenge of affordable housing in cities outside the United States, focusing on two of the world’s most expensive cities — London and Paris. The series then returns to the United States with a piece looking at affordable housing in New York City.

What was clear from our previous series of U.S.-focused posts was the key role played by non-state actors, including non-profit organizations and private-sector developers, in planning and delivering affordable housing. In order to explore the form and function of non-state actors in the arena of affordable housing in London and Paris, and compare these with trends in the United States as epitomized by the case of New York City, the new posts are centered on interviews with private-sector developers.

Despite major socio-economic and political differences rooted in divergent historical trajectories, London, Paris, and New York have seen a number of very similar developments in the area of affordable housing. In particular, housing as a sector of public action has become increasingly complex in the three cities in recent years, both in terms of the number and types of actors involved and the spatial levels at which they operate. Organizations inside and outside the public sector, from neighborhood groups, to local councils, through to national governments, and multinational banks, are forging dynamic partnerships aimed at increasing the supply of affordable housing.

This increasing hybridity within housing as a policy sector is also clear from the bridging of traditional policy silos. As the posts suggest, pressure is growing on the delivery and management of housing to become better integrated with other policy programs, including educational and social services as well as active labor market policies. The result of these twin forces–a growing constellation of actors on the one hand and the merging of policy sectors on the other–is an arena of public action that political scientists have come to label as resembling a marble cake, a phrase previously used by scholars to describe certain forms of federalism.

A second common feature evident in the posts is the death of the notion that the public sector, be it local or some combination of multiple tiers of government, is in the business of building and managing affordable housing. What we see instead is that public officials seek to motivate and incentivize private actors to meet demands for affordable housing. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the patchwork of creative but complex fiscal arrangements that are being co-developed by multiple actors inside and outside government to finance the construction of affordable properties.

This new reality seems to be centrally characterized by relationships that are fluid and explicitly rooted in material interest. Despite the fluidity of these relations, the posts suggest that a new constant is emerging: namely, a consolidated position for public officials who seek to realize government policy through bricolage, requiring them to have the combined skills of an astute financial investor, orchestra conductor, and expert puzzle master. My Harvard Kennedy School colleague Stephen Goldsmith has called this broad shift in the work of government officials ‘governing by network.’

A third key development shared by London, Paris, and New York is the growing recognition of the middle class and especially young professionals as victims of the housing crisis. This seems to have coincided with the reframing of public debates and public policy on housing in the very terms of “affordability;” a shift in discourse that appears to be at the expense of longer-standing frames of “social” and “public” housing, terms that now seem firmly reserved for housing policy aimed at poor and immigrant communities. The entrance of potentially mobilized and organized middle-class voters into the affordable housing arena also seems to coincide with the fresh energy of public- and private-sector actors to forge new partnerships aimed at increasing the supply of affordable housing.

These large-scale developments–marbling, bricolage, and the entrance of the middle class on to the policy scene–all have far-reaching democratic implications for the delivery of affordable housing. Three in particular are worth noting: the first relates to voice and participation; the second to government responsiveness; and the third to democratic accountability.

What the interviews seem to suggest is that structural changes in public-sector involvement in housing in London, Paris, and New York are being driven only partially by bottom-up citizen and community activism linked to formal electoral processes. More important are informal, elite-driven processes centered on new ideas in search of shifting political coalitions of support. The result is that citizens seem primarily to occupy the position of passive consumers of housing brought within their financial reach as a result of complicated and not easily observable forms of government action.

The second implication of the changes described in the posts relate to the issue of government responsiveness. To be clear, the challenge of housing affordability exists, in Britain and France as in the United States, first and foremost because of a lack of government responsiveness in the past. The question is whether the new ideas and relationships described in the posts mark the dawn of a period of increased government responsiveness. On the one hand, there is reason to be positive: in London, Paris, and New York, there appears to be a real appetite among local and national public authorities to work with private developers to try and meet the challenge of affordable housing head on.

On the other hand, the increasing attention being paid to the middle-class begs the question of whether the benefits of current and future public action will accrue mainly to young professionals at the expense of poor and immigrant communities with less political capital. Alternatively, we might be witnessing the beginnings of what could become a powerful cross-class coalition in support of affordable housing in cities on both sides of the Atlantic. Moreover, it is an open question whether what might seem like a cobbled-together array of complex financial vehicles, though creative and driven by good faith on the part of public officials, can actually achieve the scale and coordination necessary to address the challenges at hand.

Finally, the clear trend toward increased hybridity and complexity in the housing sector in London, Paris, and New York, resulting from a patchwork of public-private partnerships involving fairly complicated financial arrangements, has important implications for democratic accountability. If the position of public officials is weakening in these increasingly multi-level, multi-partner interdependencies, can the ballot box be effectively used as a tool to secure more affordable housing? If citizens affected by the unaffordability of housing cannot turn as easily to elected politicians and political parties for recourse, whom then should they hold responsible instead; and in this new policy environment do citizens have enough of the right kinds of resources to hold non-state actors to account?

I hope readers will enjoy the next three-part installment of our series on the challenge of affordability! We will post a new interview each week throughout November.

Quinton Mayne is Assistant Professor of Public Policy in the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. His research and teaching interests lie at the intersection of comparative and urban politics.

Originally published at



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