Jonathan Woetzel of McKinsey, Ben Hecht of Living Cities, Vishaan Chakrabarti of SHoP architects, and Mike Alvidrez of the Skid Row Housing Trust at The Atlantic's CityLab 2014 summit. Melanie Leigh Wilbur

Independence is the difference between dense cities that achieve affordable housing, like Hong Kong and Singapore, and the ones that don't.

Chicago generates more GDP than 42 states, according to Vishaan Chakrabarti, a partner at SHoP Architects and director of the Center for Urban Real Estate at Columbia University. New York City generates billions of dollars in economic activity per square mile. "We should have plenty of money to build affordable housing," he said. "We don’t, because we distribute it."

Any time, though, that Chakrabarti writes about government and decentralization and redistribution—topics that framed a discussion about affordable housing at The Atlantic's CityLab 2014 conference this week in Los Angeles—he gets loads of hate mail.

"It's all of those single mothers in the housing projects," he said, paraphrasing the haters. "The problem is that the data does not bear that out one bit."

The unshakeable misconception that rural taxpayers subsidize their citydwelling counterparts has an enormous bearing on affordable-housing policy. Dense cities that get affordable housing right—namely Singapore—enjoy home rule. Singapore spends a great deal of money subsidizing public housing for more than 80 percent of its residents, an outcome that would be unthinkable in even the most liberal dense U.S. city (and indeed is very far from the case).  

"Subsidize the supply, subsidize the demand: We know how to do all of those. We just don't have the will to do those things," said Living Cities CEO Ben Hecht. "Singapore and Hong Kong are willing to do those things."

"In Hong Kong, the people who run the subway also run the housing," Chakrabarti said. "It makes so much sense." (Other things about Hong Kong do not make so much sense.)

So, I'll bite: How much better off would cities be without states? Or even nations?

When I asked a question along those lines (whether state or federal governments provide any value to city governance), I wasn't met with the pushback that I expected. "The history [for New York City] goes back to Al Smith and Robert Moses," Chakrabarti said. Late 1970s New York City was bankrupt, while the state was in "pretty good shape" owing to its agrarian economy and government. The critique of urban dependence paid for by a rural Protestant work ethic set in there as it did elsewhere in the U.S. It still persists. It's just no longer true, strictly speaking.

"This is one where we totally screwed it up," Hecht said, "by allowing the states to be the ones to decide how small you can go. We have thousands of political jurisdictions in a given state, let alone in a region. Every one of those has an elected official sitting in the capital of the state. It’s a huge obstacle to what we’re talking about."

Renters of the world, unite!, right? Maybe not exactly. Their arguments weren't that much pinker than the average respondent to the Atlantic Media/Siemens State of the City Poll. Americans are pretty content with the quality of local government they receive, and they're much more likely to attribute good government services to local government (as opposed to state or federal government), according to the poll results.

Chakrabarti acknowledged that home rule or city-secession—!!—wouldn't necessarily make for affordable housing that residents in Chicago or L.A. or New York would accept. (Those cities, by the by, are three of the eight U.S. metro areas that stand head-and-shoulder with whole nations among the world's 40 highest producing economies on the planet.) "I don’t think most Americans want to live on the streets of Hong Kong," he said. "They may be wrong and pigheaded about that."

Every major U.S. city looks a little bit like Singapore in one specific way: They enjoy one-party rule. "Virtually every major mayor in this country is from one party," Chakrabarti said. "Even in the deepest red state, the cities are this bastion of blue voting.

"It’s not the hinterlands subsidizing the cities," Chakrabarti says, "it's the cities subsidizing the hinterlands."

The Atlantic, the Aspen Institute, and Bloomberg Philanthropies are hosting"CityLab 2014: Urban Solutions to Global Challenges," in Los Angeles on September 29 & 30. Find CityLab.com's full coverage here.

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