Roger Valdez – A National Perspective on Housing Activism

You can’t really blame housing providers in Chicago for feeling like we are uniquely under siege. For years, tenant activists and their political allies have been dreaming up new ways to make our lives more difficult. And, more and more, they have been successful in setting the agenda and scoring political victories at our expense.

But the reality is that housing providers in Chicago are not alone. And what is happening in Chicago is anything but unique. Sure, there are differences from one city to the next. Not everything that Chicago is experiencing is also happening in, say, Cincinnati or Houston. But a lot of what we view as local challenges are, in fact, national in scope. The rise of the activist left is not a uniquely Chicago phenomenon – we have more in common with other cities around the country than we recognize.

This is exactly why it’s so refreshing to talk to Roger Valdez, someone who knows a whole lot about what is going on in other places and how these issues are similar and different from one city to the next. And while it may be small comfort, there is some satisfaction is knowing that Chicago is not alone in facing these challenges.

What is happening in Chicago is anything but unique.

In addition to the freelance writing he has done on urban economics and housing for Forbes Magazine and other national publications, Roger is a founder of Seattle for Growth (2013) and the recently formed Center for Housing Economics (2019), both based in Seattle where Roger lives. Roger’s recent piece on the insidious impact of creeping housing nationalization is compelling and well worth reading.

Roger is consistent in his writing and his advocacy that the recent movement toward increased governmental control of housing will only aggravate the same housing problems that these efforts are meant to address. Spend a little time with Roger, or read some of what he has written, and you will quickly discover that Chicago is far from the only place in the United States that is reeling from the newly energized left.

Roger believes that there is no local solution without national coordination.

If you think things are bad in Chicago, consider two recently passed laws in Minneapolis and Seattle. In Minneapolis, housing providers are no longer allowed to use credit scores as a basis for screening tenants. And in Seattle, housing providers must now rent an available unit to the first person to apply. If past experience tells us anything about the future, you can bet that it is only a matter of time before these same ideas and more make their way to Chicago. If so, it seems inevitable that we will, once again, be playing defense as the Democratic Socialists and Progressives try to ram more such legislation through our own City Council.

Roger believes that there is no local solution without national coordination. What is happening in Chicago is happening in many places around the country. Roger strongly believes local organizations like RPBG and NBOA need to join forces with similar organizations in other cities nationwide to have the greatest possible impact. Roger believes a national, coordinated response is our best and perhaps our only chance of staving off further attacks on our industry.

Roger takes the view that government should stay out of the way of individuals negotiating value exchange in a free market. Government, he believes, is best when it plays the role of referee rather than dictating price or terms.

In his own words, Roger acknowledges “the frustration growing across the country [over] the creeping take-over of rental housing.”

As anyone who follows these issues knows, the left believes that more government intervention is the answer, and that government suppression of market forces – including vastly expanded tenant rights and rent control – will solve the affordable housing problem.

Roger proposes a very different approach. Roger takes the view that government should stay out of the way of individuals negotiating value exchange in a free market. Government, he believes, is best when it plays the role of referee rather than dictating price or terms.

There is certainly a range of views about how (or if) the government should intervene in housing policy. To the extent housing providers want to see any involvement at all, most would agree that the government should play a role that remains laser-focuses on policies that encourage the production of more housing. Unfortunately, in today’s political environment, something closer to the opposite is true.

One way to create a national movement for industry-friendly housing policy would be the creation of a truly national policy organization to advocate for these goals. This is exactly the reason Roger formed the Center for Housing Economics. Roger would like to see this organization become a national platform for research and policy initiatives, advocating for housing providers and their businesses. He points to the influence and effectiveness of the Institute for Economic Affairs (IEA) in 1970s-era Britain when nationalization of the coal industry rapidly gained traction and threatened to be the leading edge or a wave of nationalizations that would have turned that county into a true welfare state.

The IEA served as a research institute and advocacy organization that effectively countered the arguments for nationalization in Britain in the 1970s and created an alternative economic vision for the country of what market capitalism could do. Ultimately, the IEA won the argument. Under Margaret Thatcher, Britain experienced an economic renaissance as competition and open markets created new jobs and wealth for the country, turning London into a financial powerhouse rivaling New York and Hong Kong. In Roger’s own words, the IEA served as “a storehouse of ideas for turning back the nationalization of a key segment of [the British] economy.”

But in the United States today, there is no effective national response to the Socialist Agenda. The Democratic Socialists have Bernie Sanders and “the Squad,” led by charismatic spokeswoman, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. They have a network of tenant advocacy groups around the country, and Jacobin magazine espousing anti-capitalist views and pro-socialist policies.

What do we have? A hodge-podge of local housing provider groups that struggle to respond to the latest crisis, seemingly always on the defensive. There are national real estate groups, such as the National Association of REALTORS. But these groups have different priorities and are not focused on the threats currently faced by small owners of rental properties.

In the United States today, there is no effective national response to the Socialist Agenda. Roger believes the Center for Housing Economics could be the solution to the fractured, disjointed and defensive response that currently characterizes our industry’s reaction to the socialist left.

Roger believes the Center for Housing Economics could be the solution to the fractured, disjointed and defensive response that currently characterizes our industry’s reaction to the socialist left. Without such national and coordinated response, Roger believes we are doomed to continue watching the left chip away at our industry and gradually realize their goal of nationalized rental housing.

You can agree or disagree with his views. Even if he is right, it is far from clear that his Center for Housing Economics will be as effective as he hopes it could be. But it’s hard to argue that no further action on the part of housing providers is needed. A quick review of what we are experiencing in Chicago – and what is happening in Minneapolis, Seattle and cities all across the country – should be sufficient evidence that we need to up our game on the policy, PR and legislative fronts. Failure to do so will just get us more of the same.

We need to face the reality that current proposals for rent control, just-cause and fair notice tenant protections are just the beginning of what we are facing. More and worse is surely coming if our response continues to be as weak and inadequate as it has been.