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America Is Finally Tackling Its Housing Crisis

Advocates are turning zoning reform into an important progressive cause — not just a housing issue

A luxury 5-story condominium building is proposed to replace this narrow two-story house at 180 Washington Ave.
Photo: Ben McCanna/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images

In communities across the country, the “Not In My Backyard” approach to housing is finally getting a much-needed remodel.

In Oregon, the state legislature passed a bill earlier this month legalizing duplexes in cities with a population of more than 10,000 people; and duplexes, triplexes, fourplexes, townhomes, and “cottage clusters” in cities with over 25,000 residents. The legislation supersedes any local land use and zoning laws banning duplexes, essentially forcing cities to adopt less restrictive housing standards. Zoning reform has caught on in several municipalities: Minneapolis ended single-family zoning last year; and Seattle and Austin both recently passed “upzoning” legislation aimed at increasing density in certain neighborhoods.

All of these initiatives fit squarely into the “Yes In My Backyard” movement (YIMBY, for short), the informal pro-development campaign that’s predicated on the belief that housing has become too inaccessible and unaffordable. YIMBY stands in direct contrast to the “Not in My Backyard” philosophy (NIMBY) — that is, opposition to development and increased housing density in residential areas.

For decades, the U.S.’s development style swung closer to the NIMBY approach: subsidized housing, as well as proposals to allow more dense housing in areas previously zoned for single-family homes, tended to face fierce opposition from residents. But, with governments adopting YIMBY-esque housing initiatives — and with several presidential candidates proposing provisions aimed at encouraging cities and states to make zoning more accommodating — it appears America’s long-standing attachment to single-family zoning might finally be fading.

That’s because YIMBY supporters have tweaked the dialogue around zoning, making the cause a progressive issue — not just a housing one.

TThe roots of America’s restrictive zoning laws lie in the discriminatory housing policy of the early 1900s, when localities used zoning laws to enforce racial segregation. Today, a NIMBY-minded approach to development is still prevalent even in quite liberal, progressive areas, though it’s often couched in different terms — anti-density homeowners today are more likely to talk about environmental concerns or opposition to real estate developers than they are a distrust of minority or low-income communities. These homeowners are also still very homogenous: Researchers have found that neighborhood meetings concerning development and zoning, even in very diverse communities, are still dominated by older, white, male homeowners who oppose the building of new housing.

“Any time there was a proposed change in land use rules, the developer would meet with the neighborhood association, which are by and large a lot of homeowners,” says Anna Nelson, an activist with Neighbors for More Neighbors, a Minneapolis YIMBY group. “The voices who would get lost were people who were looking for housing, and renters.”

Not surprisingly, the NIMBY mindset tends to exacerbate inequality in cities. By limiting the supply and increasing the cost of housing in desirable areas (including suburbs), restrictive zoning laws limit access to the kinds of neighborhoods that tend to launch children into the middle class. Economists have also demonstrated that restrictive zoning laws reduce economic growth and geographic mobility, hampering Americans from moving to areas with good jobs and booming economies.

Despite this evidence, the NIMBY movement had, until recently, proven itself difficult to beat: Few politicians are eager to alienate wealthy, white homeowners, who tend to reliably show up to vote on election day.

So what’s changed?

For one, the cost of housing. Across the country, families at all income levels are struggling to afford housing. According to a recently released report commissioned by Habitat for Humanity, 31.5% of all U.S. households are rent-burdened, meaning they spend more than 30% of their income on housing. Across the country, average rents increased by 3.6% in 2018, while inflation-adjusted home prices hit new highs as well. Meanwhile, we are still building too few homes: The report notes that “New housing supply lagged overall need by 260,000 homes in 2018.”

“Often the tendency is to upzone in more vulnerable communities and preserve existing density restrictions in wealthy and more powerful communities.”

“The housing crunch is now universal,” says Solomon Greene, a Senior Fellow at the Urban Institute, a D.C.-based think tank. “But the families that are feeling it most are at the bottom end of the income spectrum.”

Interestingly, YIMBY activists have intentionally couched their activism in broader terms than just housing affordability. In Minneapolis, for example, the conversation around upzoning was initially sparked by the local administration’s desire to address the legacy of racial segregation in the city through its decennial urban planning process. Advocates also highlighted another important benefits of upzoning: It creates more walkable neighborhoods and, by reducing the need for cars or public transit, can help address climate change.

“We had residents who were just solely focused on affordability, that was their thing,” says Nelson. “But then we also had people who had never really paid attention to land use issues before, but were really passionate about climate change and viewed upzoning as a way to address that.”

The emphasis by YIMBY advocates on progressive values like climate change and racial equity is no accident. Both Oregon and Minneapolis’ initiatives were preceded by elections in which progressive (and pro-density) politicians scored big victories. And they have occurred in environments of renewed political energy and participation among communities — young people, renters, minorities, and climate activists — that have not historically been the loudest voices at neighborhood zoning meetings.

MMinneapolis and Oregon are the first localities to attempt zoning reform on this scale. “These wholesale upzoning efforts are unprecedented,” says the Urban Institute’s Greene.

That makes it difficult to predict how those reforms will affect housing affordability. In the past, zoning reform has traditionally involved smaller changes that ultimately impact different neighborhoods in myriad ways. That approach has played out in unpredictable and sometimes inequitable ways — namely, increased density in vulnerable communities, and a preservation of the (low-density) status quo in wealthy, powerful communities.

“Often the tendency is to upzone in more vulnerable communities and preserve existing density restrictions in wealthy and more powerful communities,” Greene says. “Communities that aren’t as organized to go out and defend their interests bear the brunt of upzonings.”

Despite increased supply, upzoning doesn’t necessarily reduce housing prices. In fact, researchers have actually found that prices often increase, at least initially, in upzoned neighborhoods. Developers build more expensive housing, displacing current residents. Even if the benefits of increasing a city or neighborhood’s housing stock do eventually “trickle down,” that process takes years.

Greene says that the universality of the legislation in Oregon and Minneapolis, however, may mitigate some of those effects — and provide the rest of the country with a framework going forward.

“If you can take the reforms to a higher level, the city or state, there’s a sense that we’re all in this together, we all have to absorb some of our share of new housing development,” says Greene. “It also means that no one of those places is likely to absorb all or most of the growth.”

Nelson, the Minneapolis activist, points out that a number of tenants rights’ organizations representing low-income and minority renters in the city supported the initiative to relieve development pressures on their neighborhoods.

“Before, there were only a few neighborhoods where you truly could just build, and if there’s nowhere else you can build, you’re putting all the pressure on those couple of neighborhoods,” Nelson says. “This evened the playing field.”

Journalist covering economics for @Medium. Words for @nytimes @Slate @NYMag. @Freakonomics alum. Email: dwyer.gunn@gmail.com

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