As we all know, 2016 is the year that reality television made its way to the national political stage. Less well noticed is how another idea from reality television has insinuated its way into our thinking about housing policy.

From 2006 to 2011, ABC television featured a popular reality television show called “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition.” In the show, a team of designers led by Ty Pennington worked with a small army of construction workers to completely rebuild one family’s usually tiny and dilapidated house in the space of about 48 hours. The lucky families were chosen based on audition tapes they submitted to the shows producers that showed that the family been victimized by a form of loss or tragic event, experienced a certain hardship.


In many respects, Extreme Makeover was “good” reality television; arguably it did at least tell compelling stories about the hardships and misfortunes that have struck many families, and provided a kind of telegenic barn-raising that made a tangible difference to the lives of those families. It didn’t degrade the participants families, and might have helped educate some viewers to the plight of others less fortunate than themselves.

But in many ways, we’re employing the Extreme Makeover approach to housing policy. A growing number of housing programs aid to address the housing needs of some specific, worthy group. While that’s well-intended, it may be a serious misstep. The key reason is that the problem of housing affordability is one of scale: fixing affordability, not just for a relative handful of people, but making the kind of system level changes that fix the underlying problems of constrained supply.

Unfortunately, too much of what gets labeled as housing affordability policies amount to token efforts to help a few favored groups. We have housing subsidies for the poor, but they reach fewer than a quarter of the eligible households. Inclusionary zoning programs provide so few units relative to the potential need that subsidized housing is allocated by an arcane lottery system that is so difficult to navigate that it gives well-educated applicants a big edge.

Two recent studies have criticized the tendency to carve out set-asides for favored groups for eligibility for subsidized housing. Writing last week at The American Prospect, Rachel Cohen, questioned a California proposal to dedicate a portion of that state’s low income housing tax credits to provide affordable housing for teachers. No doubt, housing is so expensive in many parts of the state that teachers can’t afford to buy the typical home. But as Cohen points out, few teachers fall below the 60 percent of area median income figure used to target low income housing tax credits.

In Minnesota, Myron Orfield has excoriated the use of these same tax credits—as well as other funding dedicated to affordable housing to provide subsidized housing for artists. In a white paper entitled “The Rise of White-Segregated Subsidized Housing.” he argues that artists housing is not only expensive and opulent, especially relative to other public housing, but that it serves mostly white populations, and actually serves to intensify patterns of racial segregation (unlike other public housing, artists public housing tends to get built in disproportionately white neighborhoods).

A good case can be made, of course, that more communities should be affordable to artists and teachers. But an equally strong case can be made that communities ought to be affordable to everyone who earns as much as artists and teachers, perhaps also even those who earn less. Trying to fix this problem for one deserving group at a time strikes us a “solution” that will never approach the scale of the problem.

Ultimately, focusing our attention on the worthiness of various different groups—artists, teachers, veterans and seniors—distracts attention from the underlying problem that we simply aren’t providing enough housing, in the right places, in the face of changing demand. The unseemly competition between these different groups just amplifies the zero sum nature of the current approach, without leading to reform of zoning laws or redressing the inequitable distribution of housing subsidies by income. This is one of those cases where fixing a problem for a few, may mean making the problem worse for everyone else.