(House building in PA fell off in the mid-2000's and never recovered | Chart: Sid Kapur)
Pennsylvania is expected to lose another Congressional seat due to population losses when the Census counts are released, reducing the political clout of the Commonwealth's delegation to Washington, and making it harder for PA residents to get a fair share back of what they pay in federal taxes. But while we can expect Pennsylvania leaders to grumble about this—and spend a lot of effort trying to make sure they personally don’t lose out from redistricting—we also don’t see them really trying to do much of anything to reverse the population declines either.
One thing state leaders could try to do to reverse the state’s political fortunes try to start building as much housing as we did back in 2004—but instead of exurban sprawl, make it walkable infill housing in the areas already well-served by existing transportation infrastructure and public transit.
This trendline, from a new building permit analysis site by Sid Kapur, is hardly the picture of a state that wants to turn its population losses around.
People in positions of authority like to blame this on all kinds of things, namely the weather and long-established trends of people moving away from the Northeast and toward southern and Sunbelt metros, and there’s some amount of this that can’t be helped. But it’s also the case that many areas of southeastern and southern central Pennsylvania and the Pittsburgh metro are fantastic places to live, and more people would choose to move there if there were just a lot more places to live available.
Many Sunbelt cities are able to offer the cheap and plentiful homes that they are because their states have a legal and permitting regime that encourages a lot of house-building, whereas Pennsylvania does not. Land use planning powers are delegated to the most micro-municipal level, rather than being county or regional decisions, and with over 2,500 different municipalities in the state, there’s no such thing as regional planning, let alone any meaningful tracking of what everyone is doing.
But this is all much too important to leave up to thousands of micro governments to figure out in an uncoordinated way, and not only because of the Congressional seat. It also bears directly on questions of housing affordability, transportation access, racial and economic segregation, and our ability to shrink the greenhouse gas output from the transportation and land use systems. To make progress in any of these areas at the scale required, more regional and state control of the planning and zoning levers of power is essential.
The state’s “fair share” housing language provides a decent skeleton for a stronger state role in housing and planning, with shades of Mount Laurel in New Jersey, but it’s still missing a clear way of holding municipalities accountable to state government for meeting any type of housing goals. And while there is some good case law on the books related to the state’s fair-share housing law, it’s only sporadically and inconsistently enforced in a way that doesn’t really weigh on municipalities’ day-to-day housing and zoning decisions like it should.
With some legislative patches here and there, Pennsylvania could be well on its way to directing the volume of housing that is permitted in different regions of the state, and engineering a housing construction boom from the state-level in the areas where people most want to live. COVID hasn’t led people to head for the exits in Philadelphia on net, and there’s some anecdotal evidence that Philly could end up a net beneficiary of people exiting some of the higher-cost cities during the pandemic. But it has also led to a big spike in interest in housing in the Philadelphia suburbs—not just from Philadelphians—and many of the most in-demand locales are the type of urban-ish smaller cities and towns with good proximity to Philadelphia on the SEPTA regional rail network.
Everyone in Pennsylvania benefits from there being more people, more jobs, and more tax revenue, but Democrats in particular have a good reason to want to cheer on a big infill housing boom in areas where they aspire toward greater political strength. AFL-CIO Data Director Mike Johnson points out that—in accordance with patterns observed elsewhere—the partisan voting split is highly correlated with population density, such that when a place reaches a certain percentage of voters per square-mile (~1,000-2,500) it starts voting reliably for Democrats.
Rather than just accept the existing population density distribution as an unchangeable fact of the political playing field, Democrats in Harrisburg should instead actively seek to use the levers of state-level housing and planning law to juice multi-family building permits in all the places that are closest to crossing that 1,500 people per square-mile number.
It’s not just planning policies that would help either, of course. With the Biden administration likely to reverse many of the Trump administration’s myriad efforts to suppress legal immigration in addition to illegal immigration, and reverse Trump’s extremely stingy cap on refugee resettlement, the United States as a whole could start to see immigration levels recover, and Pennsylvania should do all that we can, in that case, to resettle as many of those families to Pennsylvania as the federal government will allow us. And then we should ask for more. Philadelphia’s multi-year run of positive population growth since 2010 hit a snag with reduced immigration levels the last few years, which is tragic because this, more than anything else, is what has been fueling the city’s population recovery. We should be thinking actively about how to make the most of the likely immigration changes coming from a Biden administration.
Education policy changes would help too, like fixing Pennsylvania's worst-in-the-nation school funding formula that leaves school quality patchy, unequal, and unpredictable in ways that harm Pennsylvania’s ability to attract and retain families at the volume we could be doing. The successes that we’ve had in the more urban places that have been growing have often come in spite of a lot of worries about the stability of the school systems. Now imagine how many people might want to move into Philadelphia in particular if it became known for having some of the best-funded public schools of any major city.
It’s time for state leaders to stop grousing about their declining national political influence, and see the opportunity staring right at them. The fact that so many people would like to live in many parts of Pennsylvania is a chance to stop the bleeding from our population losses and try to restore our shrinking political representation in Washington—and then some! That's going to take a concerted effort to pull off, and a much bigger role for state government in housing and planning policy than anything that's come before.
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