icon The Guru Is In

Affordable Housing is Tocquevillean

5 min read

Affordable housing is a byproduct of a pluralistic democratic society; more than that, it is a goal whose pursuit creates and strengthens a pluralistic democratic society in ways that would gladden the heart of Alexis Charles Henri Clérel, Comte de Tocqueville. Ever since his Democracy in America, the word ‘Tocquevillean’ has been applied to conditions or activities symbiotic with democracy by historians, sociologists and now a housing guru.

America is great because America is good, and if America ever ceases to be good, it will cease to be great. – Alexis de Tocqueville

Scion of an aristocratic Parisian family that had endured two violent revolutions before his birth (1789, 1803) and who would personally experience three more (1830, 1848 and 1851), at the age of 26 he betook himself across the sea to the new revolutionary republic. For four years, traveling widely, note-taking extensively and obsessively scribbling, he returned to France and published a lengthy, well-written, digressive, closely observed, epigrammatic and periodically self-contradictory masterwork. In it, Tocqueville sought to define the recipe for creating a uniquely robust democratic civil society. Ultimately, he winnowed down to five core characteristics – liberty, egalitarianism, individualism, populism and laissez-faire. Combine these, he argued, and a pluralistic and sustainable society would self-evolve and self-regulate.

Democracy extends the sphere of individual freedom.

Affordable housing is associated with everything Tocquevillean. Throughout his American observations, Tocqueville identified many specific attributes as conducive to democracy as he defined it, among them moral purpose, faith in the future, aspiration to advancement, property rights and the rule of law, social mobility, neighborliness and equality of voice. 

All of these are found in microcosm in mixed-income housing:

  • Moral purpose. These days, affordable housing companies that lack moral purpose or merely fake it consistently give way to or lose out to those that have made moral purpose a foundation of their business. 
  • Faith in the future. Everyone involved, especially the developer and the regulator, invests in a shared vision of a future, better, sustainable community they will build, live in and own.
  • Property rights and the rule of law. An affordable housing lease is a social and economic bargain into which all three parties (owner, renter, government funders) enter voluntarily, and which defines property rights and rules among them.
  • Social mobility. Mixed-income housing is developed with the intention of giving lower-income households upward mobility.
  • Neighborliness. Few things incentivize enduring civility better than living cheek by jowl.
  • Equality of voice. Resident councils give voice to the voiceless.

Town-meetings are to liberty what primary schools are to science.

An ecosystem that creates affordable housing must develop Tocquevillean attributes. Like several other 19th-century political sociologists, Tocqueville saw democracy as an inevitable evolutionary response to technology, industrialization and urban complexity.

However enlightened and however skillful a central power may be, it cannot of itself embrace all the details of the existence of a great nation.

With money as the connective currency of market information, complex economies require the emergence of specialized businesses that in turn must negotiate through the market. Their collective output—the densely vertical city—in turn requires the emergence of specialized polities that negotiate democratically through the ballot box, the connective currency of political information.

In 21st-century American cities, the modern development of mixed-income affordable housing is Tocquevillean on overdrive:

  • Specialized levels of government that must work together. No modern urban mixed-income property can be developed without a federal resource that’s allocated by the states (Low Income Housing Tax Credits), plus generous helpings of soft financing from state or local entities. Every funder in the crowded capital stack must learn that none of them is unilaterally the top dog and that they need private sector players in addition to themselves.
  • Mission entrepreneurial entities that are co-evolved. They take risks—economic and political—that public entities will not. They thrive only if and to the extent that they understand, anticipate and collaboratively solve public-policy and political challenges for the public entities.
  • Inextricably shared interests that create unlikely but close alliances. There comes a time in every such complex transaction when local governments, developers and housing residents feel themselves becoming the Three Musketeers – united against common foes.
  • Public input and public choice. No change gets built or rebuilt until the public has had an exhaustive NIMBY-da-fé that, if nothing else, vocalizes every political imperative with even a tiny constituency. 
  • Resident participation that gives voice to the voiceless. Nothing accelerates capacity building within (say) a public housing local tenant organization like a comprehensive demolition-rebuild that will triple a site’s density while allowing the current residents to relocate and return, where the residents’ organization has a seat at the table.

The jury, which is the most energetic means to make the people rule, is also the most effective means to teach them to rule.

Housing dies in autocracy. Over the last 20 years, I’ve worked on pro-poor affordable housing in more than 50 countries. In all those countries, affordable housing has proved a reliable proxy indicator: if there are genuine efforts to improve housing affordability, democracy is advancing; if not, it isn’t. 

Nothing is more wonderful than the art of being free, but nothing is harder to learn how to use than freedom.

The next time someone asks you why mixed-income housing matters, to your list of reasons you can add, Mixed-income housing promotes democracy in America.  

David A. Smith is founder and CEO of the Affordable Housing Institute, a Boston-based global nonprofit consultancy that works around the world (60 countries so far) accelerating affordable housing impact via program design, entity development and financial product innovations. Write him at [email protected].