Public housing recedes as left-wing priority as parties court affluent voters

March 4, 2021
Public housing is getting lost in a political shuffle. (AP Photo/Matias Delacroix)

Public housing is getting lost in a political shuffle. (AP Photo/Matias Delacroix)

Left-wing governments have taken steps toward “state-led gentrification,” displacing and alienating working-class voters once key to their electoral success as a richer voting bloc's interests take politicians' focus off issues typically prioritized by lower-income individuals, a new study claims.

According to an article published Feb. 23 in the American Political Science Review, left-wing parties from across the world’s advanced economies aren’t incentivized to support public and affordable housing developments, as “coalitional rebalancing” allows them instead to play to increasingly affluent supporters.

The research, which focused on London and the United Kingdom’s Labour Party but resonates with trends influencing the Democratic Party in cities across the U.S., aimed to shed light on the ways an evolving center-left electorate could be reshaping the left’s policy priorities — sometimes to the detriment of low-income voters whose interests they have claimed to champion.

“While displacement and housing stress can be costly to Labour in the short run, these costs have largely been tempered by the party’s long-term rebalancing in favor of the upper and middle classes,” authors Winston Chou and Rafaela Dancygier wrote.

“Simply put," they added, "center-left urban politicians do not view housing policies that replace poorer with richer voters as ideologically or electorally costly, and this calculus helps fuel affordable housing crises and the demise of affordable housing."

Housing crises have emerged in cities around the world, according to Chou and Dancygier, putting more people at risk of eviction and homelessness in world-renowned locations, including Berlin, London and San Francisco. 

The pain is being felt across communities of all sizes. In the U.S., for example, housing affordability slumped in 2018 across over 160 urban areas tracked by the National Association of Realtors. 

While each city has its unique economic and political circumstances, the researchers wrote, many major urban governments have done little to ease the affordable housing crunch. Perhaps most puzzling of all, Chou and Dancygier wrote, they have actually implemented a range of policies exacerbating the crisis, such as eliminating public housing developments altogether.

London’s stock of publicly owned council housing declined by over 20% during the 2000s, according to the study, a slide driven by sell-offs and redevelopment projects supervised in part by Labour representatives. While Labour-controlled councils began the 2000s with much more council housing than existed in Conservative Party councils, key Inner London, Labour-controlled areas such as Tower Hamlets, Lewisham and Lambeth each lost more than 10,000 council homes between 1998 and 2017.

In the U.S., an analysis by real estate website Curbed found that the number of public housing units peaked in 1994 at 1.41 million; between 1996 and 2018, more public housing units were demolished than created each year.

Such “state-led gentrification measures” have driven up urban rents and property values in places like London, pushing low-income and working-class residents — traditionally the Labour Party’s backbone — out of their homes, according to the researchers.

These policies very likely carry costs to the party’s popularity, they found using data from the British Household Panel Survey, which shows that evictions at least temporarily alienated voters from Labour and raised the chances that they would move permanently to a new jurisdiction.

While Labour’s moves against public and affordable housing may therefore seem counterproductive, Dancygier said, the party is actually responding to new electoral incentives triggered by a fundamental shift in the core makeup of its voter base.

“These [left] governments, especially in urban areas, no longer rely very much on the middle class and the working class, so many of their supporters are [now] upper middle class and richer,” she told The Academic Times.

Chou and Dancygier argued that Labour, like other social democratic parties with urban strongholds, has in recent decades appealed increasingly to middle- and even upper-class voters by de-emphasizing cross-class redistribution and signaling support for social investment, free markets, open borders and progressive cultural causes.

The emergence of a more affluent voter base has changed the political calculus involved in displacing low-income voters, the researchers wrote, making policies that used to be electorally costly for Labour "present far fewer trade-offs today.”

In line with their expectations, Chou and Dancygier found evidence suggesting that Labour politicians across Greater London’s 624 wards used housing policy to engineer a more favorable “social mix,” especially where incomes are rising and crime rates are high. These policies, which include the demolition of public housing, are meant to make areas more livable for richer voters, even at the expense of low-income residents who are being displaced.

The researchers discovered that in areas where both crime levels and middle-class housing demand are high, wards were more likely to experience cutbacks in council housing, particularly where the party was otherwise electorally “safe” from serious challengers.

Dancygier said similar trends are at play in urban America, where issues of housing affordability have sometimes taken a backseat to the concerns of an increasingly high-income Democratic electorate.

According to the nonprofit, nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, only 1.2% of U.S. women and 1.53% of men gave more than $200 to the Democratic Party in 2020, yet 76.07% of donations were categorized as “large individual contributions,” meaning they crossed the $200 threshold.

While the Democratic Party does enjoy crucial support particularly from non-white working-class voters, Dancygier said, much of the center-left coalition “is either not necessarily hurt by high housing prices or might even actually benefit from it as homeowners.”

“I think that’s really stymied the ability and, frankly, the interest, of the Democratic Party … in places like San Francisco and New York to do a lot to change these trends,” she continued.

Dancygier said it’s possible that even more affluent left-wing coalitions will ultimately feel the pinch of skyrocketing housing prices, opening the door to a possible backlash from higher-income Labour or Democratic party supporters who become priced out of metropolitan housing markets themselves. Already millennials and their families are fleeing big cities for the suburbs, spurred in large part by the allure of affordable housing.

Left-wing parties that no longer rely largely on the support of the working class may continue shifting rhetorically toward messages more popular among the middle class, Dancygier added. But more importantly, they will also feel freer to let affordable housing crises persist.

“A left party that … feels like it no longer has to cater to the working class also doesn’t need working-class voters living in [its] districts, and that has direct implications on housing prices and affordability,” she said.

The article “Why Parties Displace Their Voters: Gentrification, Coalitional Change, and the Demise of Public Housing,” published Feb. 23 in the American Political Science Review, was authored by Winston Chou, independent scholar and Rafaela Dancygier, Princeton University.

This article has been updated to include additional data provided by the researchers, the Center for Responsive Politics and Curbed.

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