What Democratic and Republican Mayors Agree On

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Mayors of all stripes are frustrated with the effects of rising housing costs, but disagree on a range of other issues, according to the 2018 Menino Survey.

The only issue that consistently unites Democratic and Republican mayors is unaffordable housing, which both sides agree is a significant barrier to residents’ social mobility, according to Boston University’s 2018 Menino Survey of Mayors.

Among mayors of high-cost cities, 43 percent said housing costs are the biggest obstacle to residents getting ahead, but neither Democrats nor Republicans wanted to see home values decline.

A majority, 62 percent, of all mayors surveyed said they think of affordable housing as infrastructure, and they generally want to increase their cities’ housing stock. But only slightly more than one quarter want aggressive housing growth of 20 percent or more—most of those in small cities, according to the survey.

“Mayors are finding it politically challenging to take aggressive steps toward addressing the housing crisis in their cities,” said Katherine Levine Einstein, assistant professor of political science at BU and the survey’s coauthor.

Seattle and Minneapolis have bucked this trend, Levine Einstein said, the former by setting ambitious development goals that decreased rental rates and the latter in a recent decision to end single-family zoning and allow multi-family housing in every neighborhood.

About 60 percent of mayors said they prefer new housing to be owner occupied instead of rentals, and 56 percent were willing to encourage increasing housing density in more popular, established neighborhoods.

Overwhelmingly, 91 percent of mayors believe housing development decisions fall within a city’s purview, as opposed to being under the jurisdiction of a neighborhood, state or the federal government.

“The Menino Survey of Mayors reveals just how widespread the affordable housing crisis is in our country; not just affecting big cities, but permeating into smaller urban areas as well,” said Ed Skyler, an executive vice president at global bank Citi and former New York City deputy mayor, in statement.

Agreement between mayors largely ended there, with 42 percent of Democratic mayors citing the lack of living-wage jobs as the greatest impediment to social mobility—compared to only 12 percent of Republican mayors. The survey found Republican mayors more likely to say housing costs or something else were bigger barriers or, in the case of nearly two in ten, that there were none at all.

That partisan divide grew still wider when it came to implementing living-wage ordinances in cities. Six in 10 Democratic mayors support such policies, even if they resulted in fewer jobs and businesses relocating, but no Republicans said they would sign onto that kind of push—the biggest response gap on any question in the survey’s history.

When it comes to cities encouraging companies to relocate locally, majorities of mayors indicated workforce skills and composition and quality of life were more important factors than tax incentives, which only 16 percent emphasized. But 84 percent of mayors also said financial incentives were good for their city, even though other cities offer too many, and 45 percent said that they believed tax breaks were a top factor in Amazon’s HQ2 decision.

“They all do it, and they think it’s good for their city,” Levine Einstein said. “On a broader societal level, this is obviously suboptimal.”

She recommended cities consider refocusing on programs to help workers develop new skills as an alternative to tax breaks or incentives.

Most mayors agreed city councils need to improve representation of Asian American, Hispanic, low-income, renter, and immigrant communities. Across party lines, 90 percent of mayors viewed racial problems as widespread.

But partisan disagreement again reared its head when mayors were asked if immigrants should receive local government services regardless of their immigration status. Among Democratic mayors, 86 percent said even undocumented immigrants should receive services, while only 29 percent of Republicans agreed.

“On one level, that’s not surprising given the national political rhetoric,” Levine Einstein said. “But the U.S. Conference of Mayors took a strong stance on immigration, which was interesting to see.”

Researchers interviewed 110 mayors from 37 states throughout the summer.

The survey is named after the late Boston Mayor Thomas Menino, the city’s longest-serving mayor at five consecutive terms ending in 2013, and aims to identify pressing policy priorities for U.S. mayors.

“While D.C. is shut down, mayors are grappling with major issues—even ones for which their constituents may not hold them accountable for at the ballot box, but which are key for their cities,” said Graham Wilson, director of the BU Initiative on Cities, in a statement.

Dave Nyczepir is a News Editor at Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.

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