Cities across California have either switched or are preparing to switch from at-large to district-based elections. But could the transformation inadvertently be fueling the state’s housing crisis?
A fascinating report from Evan Mast at the W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research finds that housing permits declined 21% in towns that switched from at-large to district representation. The decline in permits was even larger for multifamily units and in towns with higher owner-occupancy rates after a switch to district voting (38%). Permits for single-family housing also declined by 11%.
“Ward systems are more decentralized than at-large, since representation is tied to smaller groups of people. This leads ward and at-large representatives to face very different incentives,” Mast writes. “At-large representatives should be concerned with the average opinion of the town, while ward representatives should respond to the average opinion in their district. This difference is likely important for housing approvals. Within the ward containing a proposed development, a higher percentage of people will be affected by the project’s concentrated costs than in the town as a whole. This means that the average opinion of the project in the ward may be lower than in the town as a whole, making ward representatives less likely to support housing developments.”
Mast’s research was based on national data from 1980 to 2016 from the Census Building Permits Survey and the Department of Housing and Urban Development. He looked at towns over 2,500 people that switched to district representation and compared them with towns in the same county whose councils remained at large.
Mast’s research was not a critique of district-based voting or its wider purported benefits, such as increased minority representation. The study exclusively focused on how the trend may be affecting the housing supply.
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