Last night we were in San Diego’s East Village, near the ballpark, in a dairy factory converted to an urban loft, with a food truck selling empanadas on the street outside. It proved a great setting for a wide-ranging conversation last night with a guy who’s done a lot of thinking about cities and development and housing and how to do them all better.

Matt Yglesias, a Washington, D.C.-based business and economics blogger for Slate, joined us at Luce Loft for the first 2013 installment in our “One Voice at a Time” series. We talked a lot about themes from his book, The Rent Is Too Damn High.

I hosted the conversation, and more than 120 readers attended and a few pitched in thoughts and questions. We’ll have a few short videos from last night to share with you early next week, but for now, here are a few highlights from the night.

Yglesias’s most frequent point last night was that cities should allow more development — a greater supply of homes — so that those homes can be cheaper to rent or buy.

“Ultimately, the reason that we build houses is that people need places to live,” he said. “And the reason to buy a house is the same reason to rent a house — you and your family need to be somewhere. And ultimately, trying to have houses be expensive isn’t a sustainable economic strategy for a country or a region.”

What about the governmental programs that try to restrict prices and rents in gentrifying areas?

“I think that what any city needs to look at is not just the question of, ‘Is a certain share of the population going to be low-income and quote-unquote “affordable,”‘ but in the aggregate how many people are going to be able to afford to come here?” he said. “You need to produce, I think, not just affordable housing, but adequate housing.”

So, how do you do that?

Yglesias pointed to a number of liberally minded jurisdictions in coastal California, but said they often have an accompanying “real taste for regulation.” There’s not enough production of new housing in coastal California, he said. I mentioned my colleague Andy Keatts’ recent post on the coastal height limit in San Diego that restricts building west of Interstate 5 to 30 feet.

“I think you have to ease up on some of it, and you have to say that people can build new things,” he said.

I asked about the push last decade to increase the share of Americans who own their homes rather than rent. Without the silliness of the loans the country was using for that effort, is that pursuit worthwhile?

Yglesias said he still endorses the push to bring families to a point where they can afford to own real estate. But whether we want to promote homeownership or not, he said, the problem was counting on housing values increasing in place of rising wages and incomes.

“I think what we got into recently, which was really dangerous, was the idea of homeownership as the key wealth-building strategy for individuals,” he said.

Yglesias makes the point in his book that the price per square foot hasn’t changed all that much for the construction of houses. It’s the size of the houses that has changed considerably.

What happens is that as people get richer, they want bigger houses. The average newly built single-family home in 1950 was 983 square feet … By 2006, average housing sizes were up to 2,349 square feet.

So I asked him:

What would you build, from scratch? What size house would you build, knowing what you know about costs and economics of housing?

“Unfortunately, I’m no different than anyone else. And what I would like, in my dreams, is a house that’s slightly bigger than my friends’ houses,” he joked. “And I do think that that is one of the reasons why home sizes have tended to grow.”

This question came from the crowd:

What role can or should other governments — states or national — play to push city governments to increase density?

Yglesias said federal transportation money is already beginning to be tied to cities’ willingness to absorb population growth. That kind of funding can help incentivize denser development, he said.

“The money’s going to go to places that are looking to add people,” he said. “If you want to say our city is closed off, it’s a gated community, no more people are coming, that’s fine — local issues are local issues. But the national taxpayers don’t need to fund your local transportation infrastructure if you’re not letting any more people come.”

We covered some other topics, like education and even federal subsidies for asparagus, over the course of the evening. And Yglesias stuck around for some informal conversations.

You can see what people were writing on Twitter at the event here.

Thanks to all of you who came and participated in the discussion. What’d you think of Yglesias’s points? What would you like to see in a future One Voice event? Leave us a note below.

Photos by Sam Hodgson.

I’m Kelly Bennett, reporter for Voice of San Diego. You can reach me directly at or 619.325.0531.

Disclosure: Voice of San Diego members and supporters may be mentioned or have a stake in the stories we cover. For a complete list of our contributors, click here.

Kelly Bennett

Kelly Bennett is a former staff writer for Voice of San Diego.

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