Inventing Facts to Support NIMBYism: Academics Called Out for Unethical Research in Urban Studies

September 23, 2020

As the old saying goes, when you’re stuck in a deep hole, stop digging. 

This would be sound advice for Andres Rodrigues-Pose and Michael Storper, geographers at the London School of Economics and UCLA respectively, who recently wrote a bizarre defense of a study they published in Urban Studies last fall that claimed there’s no link between housing prices and zoning regulations. 

Although it was broadly circulated by anti-housing activists, that study was wrought with so many flaws that Michael Manville, Michael Lens and Paavo Monkkonen, faculty at UCLA’s Luskin School of Public Affairs, spent 23 pages detailing its deficiencies in a response also published in Urban Studies. The errors in the original piece are are too numerous to describe here, but they include misunderstandings of regulation indices, arbitrarily excluding data, and differing time-scales on key correlation plots central to their argument.

When it was released in the fall of 2019, Rodriguez-Pose and Storper’s paper — a leading academic journal of planning and urban affairs — drew immediate fanfare from California’s anti-housing activist community. 48 Hills’ Tim Redmond wrote that the study debunked “the proposition that the solution to economic inequality is to encourage more low-skilled and underpaid workers to move to vibrant, growing cities where they can find work.” Livable California posted a video of Storper presenting the paper and “utterly dismantl[ing] state Sen. Scott Wiener’s SB 50 trickle-down luxury housing fiasco.” Even Richard Florida wrote a fawning Bloomberg Opinion piece presenting the article as an important contribution to the way we understand the housing crisis gripping American cities. 

The central claim of their article was that lifting zoning regulations and other restrictions on housing construction have no effect on housing affordability in America’s metropolitan areas. The real driver of increased housing costs, they argue, are wage and income inequalities. Removing impediments to new housing construction, the authors state, would result in “Gentrification without affordability.”

As Manville, Lens and Monkkonen noted in a letter to Urban Studies’ editor, (and shared on Twitter by Monkkonen), Rodriguez-Pose and Storper literally invent the content of another study, (something they also did with another study in their original article) and misrepresent that paper’s main conclusion. The final passage of the Manville/Lens/Monkkonen letter is so damning, it’s worth reproducing here:

“We understand that it would be challenging for the Urban Studies editors to have checked this reference. But you do see our dilemma: it’s hard to argue with people who just invent facts. And Urban Studies is, intentionally or not,  putting its imprimatur on these inventions… We understand ‘Debates’ articles may not be as extensively reviewed as research articles, but given the importance of these particular misrepresentations for the debate itself, we did want to raise our concerns about this process. Of course many people won’t notice these fabrications. We did notice, and we think it matters. Hopefully the journal will issue a correction.”