The Volokh Conspiracy

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Why Pro-Choice Blue States Should also be Pro-YIMBY

Atlantic writer Jerusalem Demsas argues that blue states can't give "refuge" to people fleeing abortion restrictions if they don't cut back on zoning restrictions that lead to sky-high housing costs.


In a recent article, Atlantic writer Jerusalem Demsas explains why blue states that want to give refuge to people fleeing abortion restrictions enacted by red states if Roe v. Wade gets overruled, must cut back on zoning restrictions that drive up the cost of housing. They should embrace the "YIMBY" ("yes in my backyard") movement:

For much of American history, freedom from an oppressive legal system could be found by picking up and leaving. During the Great Migration, millions of Black Americans abandoned the Jim Crow South for the North, Midwest, and West; at a smaller scale, LGBTQ people have long fled communities where they felt unwelcome for liberal cities. On some level, Americans—with our unique system of federalism—have always voted with our feet.

The ability to move is especially important at this moment, as the Supreme Court seems poised to overturn Roe v. Wade, empowering state governments to determine the abortion rights of millions. If abortion does indeed become a state-level issue, it will join a host of other civil rights and benefits that depend on location….

Blue-state politicians know that they can largely define how well rights are protected within their borders and, in the case of abortion, have promised to ensure ongoing access….

What blue-state politicians are not doing is ensuring that people in other states can find refuge in Democratic states. For decades now, what was once commonplace—Americans moving from state to state—has been made exceedingly difficult, largely because of cost-of-living concerns. Declining rates of interstate mobility show that many Americans are stuck where they are, consigned to the political decisions of governments they may profoundly oppose, without an escape valve. Low-income Americans have also been forced out of expensive, typically blue states to less expensive, typically red ones, where their access to basic government protections may be nonexistent, but at least the average home price doesn't exceed $600,000….

In a federal system, access to housing undergirds access to many of the civil rights Democrats claim they want to protect. If the price tag for those rights is $3,200 a month, that tells me all I need to know…..

Declining interstate mobility is not all about housing costs. But on this issue, states have immense power to make a difference. Contrary to the dictum that "all housing politics is local," local authorities always serve at the pleasure of their state government. The U.S. Constitution makes no mention of local government power, leaving it up to the states to distribute authority.

None of the underlying dynamics driving up the cost of living is unknown or even really contestable. Experts have been sounding the alarm for decades that escalating rents and home prices are the results of laws limiting the supply of affordable housing. Across the nation, including in the states governed by Newsom, Hochul, and Lamont, localities enforce exclusionary zoning policies that make it difficult or even illegal to build affordable housing such as small single-family homes, duplexes, and apartment buildings.

I  highlighted this issue in my own earlier post on foot voting and abortion. I hope other liberals will heed Demsas' call. As discussed in my previous post, migration may be less necessary to escape abortion restrictions than some other harmful state-government policies, because there are a variety of potential alternatives to having an abortion clinic nearby, such as contraception, mail-order abortion pills, and traveling to get an abortion in an another state. But to the extent that having abortion services nearby is vital for some women, they can more easily find it if pro-choice blue states make it easier for the poor and lower-middle class to migrate there.

As Demsas notes - and I have repeatedly emphasized in previous writings (including an article in the Atlantic)- zoning restrictions also cut off lower-income people from a wide range of other rights and opportunities they might otherwise enjoy, including jobs and education. Fixing this problem should be a high priority for both right and left, as experts across the political spectrum have come to recognize. But it's especially urgent if you are a political liberal who thinks the blue state social model is valuable and therefore should be available to more people - especially to more of the poor and disadvantaged. Blue jurisdictions tend to have  the most severe exclusionary zoning, and this is one of the main reasons why they have been losing population to red states like Texas and Florida.

Demsas also rightly points out that high housing costs caused by zoning undercuts blue states' openness to immigrants and refugees:

The inhospitality of rich, liberal states to the poor and working classes is a problem at the international level as well. During the recent Afghan-refugee crisis, resettlements to coastal areas foundered on the lack of available affordable housing. When the State Department released a list of cities with potential homes for refugees, it left off America's largest progressive cities: New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Seattle, and Washington, D.C. Refugees are actually not welcome here, it seems.

I made the same point in a 2019 post, building on earlier pieces by NY Times columnist Farhad Manjoo and my George Mason University colleague, economist Tyler Cowen.

High housing costs are not the only blue-state policy that blocks foot voting by the poor. Occupational licensing (also a problem in many red states), restrictive labor regulations,  high state tax rates are additional culprits. But exclusionary zoning has particularly massive effects, that likely outweigh other factors.

Over the last few years, a number of blue jurisdictions have begun to address this problem. But much more needs to be done. If you want to be pro-choice and pro-immigrant, you should also be pro-YIMBY.

NEXT: On the Leak in Dobbs

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  1. In general, pro-illegal-immigration and pro-abortion people are trying to impose this on others, not themselves. So do not expect this logic to gain traction.

    1. Yeah. Telling people how they should feel is a losing proposition.

  2. "fleeing abortion restrictions "

    Yup not letting out of state New Yorkers and San franciscans dictate our local policies on abortion clinics means we have regiments of goosestepping soldiers in black body armor chasing down barefoot teens in HUMVEEs.

  3. You don't have to move permanently to New York of California to get an abortion. Just visit. Or better, go to Las Vegas, where they have the mindset to cater to just about anything to make money. I'm certain some lower level casino is already looking into becoming an abortion destination.
    Roundtrip flights from most of the states likely to put much restriction on abortions is less than $300 now, and a person could get in some blackjack or see a show. Since people go there anyway, who's to know? What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.

    1. We'll probably see GoFundMe requests for these trips, some genuine and some not.

    2. One can see the advertising for the package! Stay 3 nights, Visit Hoover Dam, see a show, get free blackjack and slot credit, have a session with a prostitute, get a couple of onces of pot, and have an abortion. All for one low price! Airfare, hotel, meals, and transportation from the casino hotel to the various sites and providers included.

  4. Most of our advanced, educated, modern states have straggling areas with lower housing costs.

    Soon enough, the federal government may be subsidizing travel for those seeking abortions but located in our backwater states.

    This argument seems weak.

  5. So, blue states need to encourage foot voting so the senate and the electoral college can get ever more biased in favor of the extremist right wing. What a way to give acreage the power to turn the whole country red...

    FWIW, I actually support YIMBY! Your post gave me second thoughts... Perhaps, blue staters should use their home equity to build affordable housing in purple districts in red states and rent to populations that tend to vote blue.

  6. Not going to be a lot of abortion tourism, so I don’t see YIMBA being that effective. Why? Simple demographics. For the most part, many of the states most likely to have the least restrictions on abortion, are already the ones with the most extensive welfare systems. The demographic most likely to avail themselves of abortions are poor, inner city Blacks.

  7. Professor Somin,

    Over the years you’ve come uo with a number of reasons why liberal should sign on to relaxing restrictive zoning laws. And you’ve in no small measure at least partially vindicated, as increasing numbers of left-wing scholars and activists look at zoning laws with increasing skepticism, as ways to lock in the haves and lock out the have-nots.

    But I must say, this justification really takes the cake. And I’m not sure it will fly. Rich peopleare often more inclined to policies that preserve rights for themselves then to ones thst re uire them to give something up for others. Rich liberals are no exception, which is one of the reasons states that lean left often have the strictest zoning laws, especially when it comes to keeping poor people away from their back yards.

  8. No woman considers moving to another state because it has more liberal abortion laws. That's because no woman ever assumes she will one day need an abortion.

    These foot-voting posts about abortion are laughably male, which is to be expected around here. By that I mean it sounds like none of the male writers had a woman around to bat this around with.

  9. Most people don't plan on getting knocked up so often as to make nearby availability of abortion a primary consideration in where they choose to live, especially when they can just visit, have their abortion, and leave.

  10. Abortion has been essentially illegal in Texas since September 1 of last year. It's been eight months. Have angry progressives taken en masse to the streets? Of course not. Without Rachel Maddow to remind them daily, they tend to forget they're bring oppressed. Has there been a mass exodus from Texas? I haven't heard of one. More people are still likely coming into the state than leaving it, and that isn't even counting our open Southern border.

    A year from, two years from now, in the post-Roe world, the difference to most will be imperceptible. The great majority of states will still allow abortion to varying degrees. Very few, if any states, will have a complete ban. Some states will proudly boast abortion-on-demand for nine months (and possibly a bit longer). And a process that the Court short-circuited nearly 50 years ago will re-start, with the ultimate result likely being gradual liberalization of abortion laws over time, as was happening the day Roe was decided.

  11. I think Reason has greatly over states the effect overturning Roe v Wade will have on people (women) fleeing states because of abortion restrictions. Most people, and women in particular, are tied to places because of family and work, and many of those for who this is a major issue have already left. Far more people flee blue states because of taxes and high cost of living than will move their because they must live in a place where they can get an abortion.

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