Public Meetings Thwart Housing Reform Where It Is Needed Most

Interview with Katherine Levine Einstein by Jake Blumgart: “Public engagement can have downsides. Neighborhood participation in the housing permitting process makes existing political inequalities worse, limits housing supply and contributes to the affordability crisis….

In 2019, Katherine Levine Einstein and her co-authors at Boston University produced the first in-depth study of this dynamic, Neighborhood Defenders, providing a unique insight into how hyper-local democracy can produce warped land-use outcomes. Governing talked with her about the politics of delay, what kind of regulations hamper growth and when community meetings can still be an effective means of public feedback.

Governing: What could be wrong with a neighborhood meeting? Isn’t this democracy in its purest form? 

Katherine Levine Einstein: In this book, rather than look at things in their ideal form, we actually evaluated how they are working on the ground. We bring data to the question of whether neighborhood meetings are really providing community voice. One of the reasons that we think of them as this important cornerstone of American democracy is because they are supposedly providing us perspectives that are not widely heard, really amplifying the voices of neighborhood residents.

What we’re able to do in the book is to really bring home the idea that the people who are showing up are not actually representative of their broader communities and they are unrepresentative in really important ways. They’re much more likely to be opposed to new housing, and they’re demographically privileged on a number of dimensions….

What we find happens in practice is that even in less privileged places, these neighborhood meetings are actually amplifying more privileged voices. We study a variety of more disadvantaged places and what the dynamics of these meetings look like. The principles that hold in more affluent communities still play out in these less privileged places. You still hear from voices that are overwhelmingly opposed to new housing. The voices that are heard are much more likely to be homeowners, white and older…(More)”.