Sean Speer

Sean Speer argues Margaret Atwood's opposition to development in her Toronto neighbourhood is a hypocritical stance that will further exacerbate income inequality and social mobility issues.

By Sean Speer, Sept. 5, 2017

Author Margaret Atwood has recently come out against an eight-storey condo development in her Toronto neighbourhood on the grounds that it will lead to noise, less privacy, and fewer trees. Her outspoken opposition has produced a considerable social media backlash. Rightly so.

It requires a healthy dose of cognitive dissonance to lament the state of income inequality in the country, as the author of The Handmaid's Tale does frequently, and then champion housing policies that exacerbate it. But that's the core issue here.

A significant body of research finds that the type of exclusionary or "snob" zoning for which Atwood advocates disproportionately punishes low- and middle-income people. It thus risks growing economic disparities between age and income groups and becoming a "class barrier" to upward mobility.

This evidence-based perspective is widely held across the intellectual and political spectrum. Left-leaning policy scholar Richard Reeves calls it "opportunity hoarding" by high-income earners and existing homeowners in his new book.

Right-leaning Harvard economist Ed Glaeser describes it as a "regulatory tax" that transfers wealth from the less affluent to the more affluent, promotes housing segregation, and precludes residents from living near jobs and opportunity.

And Jason Furman, a former chief economic adviser to President Obama, has written: “zoning regulations and other local barriers to housing development allow a small number of individuals to capture the economic benefits of living in a community, thus limiting diversity and mobility.”

These findings are intuitive. Dynamic cities like Toronto are home to a disproportionate share of jobs and opportunity. These labour markets are shouting at the top of their lungs for workers. But high housing costs can be a barrier to low- and middle-income people living in them and in turn can cause these calls to go unanswered.

One result is that the economy suffers. A recent study estimates that the U.S. economy would be 10% bigger if three cities (San Francisco, San Jose, and New York) had the less restrictive zoning regulations that the median American city employs.

But more importantly: people suffer. It can cause them to remain stuck in places with less hope and fewer opportunities and miss out on the prospects of living in dynamic, job-creating cities. It leads to housing segregation and income polarization in our cities as poverty moves to the city's edges and away from jobs and opportunities in the city core. And it undermines the prospect of broad-based homeownership which is associated with a raft of positive economic and social benefits.

The upshot is that inequality expands and opportunity diminishes. This is such a regrettable outcome for our city and the country - especially since these policy choices are in our control.

This is why we're witnessing a growing multi-partisan consensus in favour of liberalized zoning rules and new and innovative means of urban development including mid-rise condo buildings like the one Atwood opposes. A growing number of economists and policy experts from across the Left and Right have come together on this issue. Atwood’s controversy suggests that we still have more work to do.

A real anti-inequality agenda would focus less on income redistribution and more on enabling the conditions for low- and middle-income citizens to pursue jobs and opportunities in our major cities. Ending snob zoning is something that we should all agree upon.

Sean Speer is a Munk Senior Fellow at the Macdonald Laurier Institute