Politics Drive Policy: Here’s How to Make it Work for You

In recent decades, the cost of housing in dozens of high-growth cities like New York, Boston, and Los Angeles has skyrocketed, spiking homelessness rates in these areas. You might expect that such a problem would invite a massive response from elected officials. And indeed, some municipal leaders have tried a few ideas: several large cities have implemented rent control policies or funded the development of below-market-rate housing. Neither policy has had much of an impact. Is it that experts just don’t know how to keep housing costs down? Nope. While the familiar Economics 101 supply and demand charts often bear little resemblance to real-world markets, they actually capture housing market dynamics pretty well. Zoning regulations that limit housing supply increase costs, while flexible rules that allow more housing reduce prices. So why don’t we build?  

It turns out politics—not policy—is the major barrier. Restricted housing supply drives up prices, and from the point of view of current city homeowners (read: voters) improves the value of their investment. Transient renters or potential future residents—including people who would like to move to the area but can’t afford to—have an interest in increasing housing supply, but tend to vote in lower numbers or not all, respectively. Moreover, a sordid history of explicit and implicit racial segregation through policies like redlining and exclusionary zoning have long prevented Black families from owning homes and kept them out of predominately white neighborhoods. President Trump’s recent attempts to scare white suburban voters about low-income housing is just the latest example. 

I consider the political dynamics that heavily influence policy outcomes on an issue like housing to be the “issue landscape.” The issue landscape encompasses who is impacted by an issue, the intensity of their support or opposition to various solutions, the ability of different constituencies to organize, and each group’s level of influence with policymakers. Understanding the landscape is critical to determining which tactics and strategies are more or less likely to change the status quo. Moreover, these dynamics are constantly in flux, and are subject to changing political narratives, new policies, and even information technology like the internet or social media platforms. 

It will take a few posts to fully flesh out the various aspects of an issue landscape, so I’m including a rough outline of the topic areas. In each post, I’ll try to give a variety of examples of the political dynamics at play, and which strategies and tactics advocacy organizations can employ under the circumstances. Overcoming entrenched interests often requires movement building over many years, strategies that are widely articulated elsewhere and beyond the scope of this post. I write from the perspective of an advocate working on a particular issue and looking for near term tactics like framing the message of a report or planning a campaign tailored to political dynamics they are facing. 

  1. How Are People Affected?
  2. Numbers Matter. But Tiny Groups Can Have Big Influence.
  3. It Helps to Have Powerful Friends.
  4. How to Get People to Pay Attention to Your Issue.