The Electoral Causes and Consequences of Housing Crises

In the APSA Public Scholarship Program, graduate students in political science produce summaries of new research in the American Political Science Review. This piece, written by Lizzie Martin, covers the new article by Winston Chou, Independent Scholar and Rafaela Dancygier, Princeton University,Why Parties Displace Their Voters: Gentrification, Coalitional Change, and the Demise of Public Housing”.


Governments around the world have recently engaged in a number of gentrification measures that increase housing costs. For example, in the United Kingdom, Labour Party politicians have replaced public housing with more expensive private options. This is a reversal of the traditional policy positions of political parties in the country: previously, Conservative politicians used housing privatization to reduce the number of Labour Party voters in their districts.

Winston Chou and Rafaela Dancygier, the authors of “Why Parties Displace Their Voters: Gentrification, Coalitional Change and the Demise of Public Housing,” find it surprising that processes like these are often overseen by parties on the left of the political spectrum. Affordable housing shortages push low-income voters out of cities where they might have supported center-left politicians. Chou and Dancygier examine housing crises and gentrification in the U.K. with an eye toward these electoral consequences. They note that housing affordability crises caused by government-led gentrification policies could influence elections by inspiring people to protest or through news coverage, but these policies can also reshape the electorate by moving voters to new districts or causing them to withdraw from politics altogether.

In order to better understand the causes and consequences of gentrification in the U.K., Chou and Dancygier undertake an analysis with several key components. First, using a panel dataset that follows a group of individuals over time, they show that being evicted significantly reduces the likelihood that a voter will support the Labour Party, and that evictions often displace Labour voters from their electoral districts permanently. These should be problems for politicians on the left, like those in the Labour Party. Why enact policies that alienate or displace potential voters?

The authors consider a number of possibilities. Perhaps politicians see bringing in businesses and higher-income taxpayers as a way to raise money, perhaps they are responding to increased demand for certain types of housing, or perhaps they are simply trying to deliver housing more efficiently. However, none of these factors account for the patterns in housing policy that the authors observe.

Rather, the authors point to changes in the demographic composition of cities and of Labour’s urban electorates as the key reason behind the party’s failure to prevent affordable housing crises and its support for demolishing public housing. They demonstrate that Labour councils reduce public housing in response to two key factors: first, greater demand from middle-income voters, and second, the stigmatization of public housing as a source of crime and disorder.

“These analyses support what their interviews suggest: electoral considerations are more likely to be driving changes in housing policy than considerations of efficiency or pragmatism.” To show this, they map historical trends, which indicate that the number of middle- and high-income voters has increased in cities in the U.K. Interviews with politicians, housing policy experts, and activists suggest that this new group of voters influences how politicians think about housing policy. In fact, many politicians believe that displacing lower income voters may create room for wealthier voters who in the past may have voted for the Conservatives but today support Labour. While initial displacement and housing stress can undermine support for the Labour Party in the short-term, politicians believe that these electoral costs are tempered by the long-term rebalancing of the party’s support base to include more voters from the upper- and middle-classes. These attitudes are particularly prevalent when public housing is stigmatized.

Finally, the authors conduct quantitative analyses of public housing reductions in London, the most populated city in Western Europe and one of the most expensive. These analyses support what their interviews suggest: electoral considerations are more likely to be driving changes in housing policy than considerations of efficiency or pragmatism.

Shortages of affordable housing, therefore, seem to result in part from strategic political decisions. The authors provide considerable evidence that urban housing crises may be consequences of the way that center-left parties think about and work to reconfigure their base of electoral support, particularly in terms of rebalancing toward the middle class.