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The Politics of Housing Affordability

July 23, 2020 by admin
Housing, Policy/Legislative

Housing affordability and “reform” of local land use practices have been a hot topic around the country over the last couple of years, including here in the state of Utah.  And it appears that it continues to be on political agendas, even amid the pandemic, with its apparent but uncertain impacts on future urban growth.

Most notably, changes in local land use controls have taken place on a statewide level in California and Oregon, and in cities such as Minneapolis, Seattle and Toronto.  In Utah, the housing “gap” issue – more new family units being formed than the number of new dwellings produced – has prompted the creation of a housing affordability task force, a business-led Housing Gap Coalition, a state Commission 0n Housing Affordability, and changes in state code to require cities and counties to consider and adopt housing strategies from a menu of options, as well as tying state transportation funding to local land use actions.

The rapid collapse of the nation’s economy with the COVID-19 pandemic should have, in keeping with other economic recessions, relieved upward pressures on cost in the housing markets and thus helped with the housing affordability crisis.  But, as noted in an earlier post on the APA Utah website (Zoning, Affordability, and COVID-19), this seems not to be the case.  And the continued political pressure to pursue state-level policy actions on local land use management has not abated (see comments reported in the APA website post).

All of this is being supplemented and enhanced by the recent emphasis on racial equality.  Many writers have noted the underlying segregation in the wholesale adoption in many cities years ago of exclusive single-family zoning (see, for example, How Housing Policies Keep White Neighborhoods So White in Governing Magazine).  We are thus now seeing even greater calls for reformation of local zoning laws.

In last week’s issue of The Economist, a story titled Segregation still blights the lives of African-Americans noted:

Zoning rules which keep the cost of housing high by restricting supply make it very hard for poor black families to move to better neighbourhoods. As income inequality has risen, well-to-do families have bid up the price of homes near good schools, further concentrating poverty. Public-housing programmes, which could break up these patterns, do little. Continuing discrimination makes matters worse. A recent investigation into rentals in Boston showed that in situations where a white applicant secured a viewing 80% of the time a black applicant with identical financial credentials would get a viewing just 48% of the time.

The story then goes on to suggest solutions to this issue, including:

The most obvious starting-point is stripping away the zoning rules that ban apartments in high-cost cities. They deny opportunity to poor families of all colours even as they drag down economic productivity.

The effort to limit exclusive single-family residential zoning, or at the very least require inclusion of more options, is very much alive and well across the country.  California is still seeing activity (Sen. Wiener Want to Abolish Single-Family-Only Neighborhoods in California).

In Connecticut a newly organized group is pushing the state legislature to consider a variety of measures, hopefully in an upcoming special legislative session later this year:

The coalition, known as DesegregateCT, is pushing a series of ideas, including allowing accessory apartments as large as 1,200 square feet to be permitted on large, single-family lots. In addition, they are calling for more small-scale townhouses and duplexes or so-called middle housing that could be built within a half-mile of train stations and a quarter-mile of commercial developments. They want towns to designate 10% of their property as middle housing or multifamily in order to diversify the housing options. They also want to relax minimum parking requirements that they say are highest in wealthier towns. “We have too many freestanding single-family homes, which are expensive and, for many, undesirable,” the groups says on its website. “We have to give people more opportunities to choose where and how they live.”

One of the more notable aspects of the Connecticut effort is the role of the state’s Conference of Municipalities (similar to our League of Cities and Towns).  Such organizations usually take the position that the crafting land use reforms should be left to those who work with them every day, the local governments.  But to some, this has seemed to be a bit like the fox being asked to watch the henhouse.  Asking locally-elected officials to lead the way on changing land use regulations away from predominant single-family zoning, who are the very officials who originally enacted and subsequently have perpetuated it, may not result in the needed changes, they say.

In a change of tone, here’s the statement from Connecticut Conference of Municipalities (CCM) Executive Director Joe DeLong at the coalition event:

“Our organization, for years, has really focused on local control,” DeLong said. “I think the first thing that CCM needs to do is reflect on ourselves and understand whether or not we’re being a part of the solution or whether we’re being a quick path to ‘no.’ That’s why we’re here today. We have members all across the state that have mixed views on this issue. Some probably support every proposal in here, some support some and not others. But the message I want to deliver is don’t use us as a reason not to act. We want to be a part of the solution. We want to be at the table.

“As long as I’m here at CCM, our focus is not going to be on ‘no.’ Our focus is going to be on making a difference in how we get to ‘yes.’ ”


State legislatures in Virginia, Washington and Maryland have just this year considered similar measures.  And even in that liberal urban hotspot, Nebraska, the legislature this year considered, among others,  The Missing Middle Housing Act.  A story in Bloomberg noted:

the battle over single-family homes (has come) to Nebraska. A state legislative committee heard arguments about a number of bills designed to lower housing costs by lifting local bans on duplex homes, triplexes, townhouses and other options in cities across the state.

So, what can we expect in our fair state this coming year?  Well, the state Commission on Housing Affordability indicates that they will be continuing to work on this issue, and likely will generate more recommendations for the state legislature, administration, and cities and counties to consider.  And the Commission has asked commission member Chris Gamvroulas, President of Ivory Development, to head a subcommittee charged specifically with looking at local land use regulations and their impact on housing affordability. That subcommittee will hold its first meeting on July 23 week.

We haven’t heard the last on this topic just yet.

Wilf Sommerkorn

Co-Chair, APA Utah Legislative Committee

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