Apr 12, 2023 - Politics & Policy

Housing politics divide the suburbs

Illustration of construction workers analyzing a house on top of a stack of money.

Illustration: Trent Joaquin/Axios

State and local governments across the country are trying to alleviate their housing crises by allowing denser development in areas dominated by single-family homes.

Why it matters: The nation's affordable housing crisis has significantly worsened over the last few years, but allowing builders to build more housing has sparked a backlash among some homeowners.

The big picture: "There certainly is a widespread fear of housing becoming increasingly unaffordable to a large share of the population, and the remedy that is being discussed nationwide [is] changing zoning rules," said Yonah Freemark, a researcher at the Urban Institute.

  • Low-density neighborhoods are often zoned so that only single-family homes can be built there. Advocates are pushing local governments to loosen those rules and allow multiple types of housing.
  • Changing zoning laws is an especially attractive option because it can increase supply at no cost to the government, Freemark said.
  • As the housing crisis has spread beyond the nation's most expensive coastal cities, “even these more conservative states see housing costs as a major concern and something they want to intervene to do something about," he said.

Driving the news: Arlington, Va., has been mired in a fierce debate over proposals to allow more "missing middle" housing — buildings like duplexes, that aren't single-family homes or large apartment complexes.

  • The county board recently decided to allow more of that construction, despite loud opposition from some homeowners.
  • Nearby Alexandria has also launched its own initiative to examine and change its zoning code.
  • Washington's state House has passed a bill that would require cities to allow denser housing on lots that are currently designated for single-family use, Axios Seattle reports.
  • And Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed into law a measure that requires local governments to allow multifamily housing in commercial and mixed-use areas in certain situations, though it also strips them of the authority to impose rent control.

Between the lines: Some experts say single-family zoning not only limits housing supply, but also perpetuates racial segregation.

The other side: Some opponents fear the changes would harm existing homeowners, including through deflated property values, increased stress on infrastructure or other unintended consequences.

  • They've successfully blocked some rezoning efforts. Arizona's housing push died in the state Senate, although reform supporters are still pushing alternative proposals, Axios Phoenix reports.

What we're watching: New York Gov. Kathy Hochul's housing plan — which includes new housing targets and rezoning measures — is being applauded by supporters as an ambitious approach to the state's housing problems, but comes with major political risk.

  • Some see it "as the policy equivalent of an extinction-level event and a bizarrely self-defeating move from a governor who risks permanently alienating the suburban voters she’ll need to win reelection in three years," Bloomberg reported last week.

The bottom line: Zoning reform alone — particularly when that reform is modest — isn't going to solve the nation's lack of affordable housing, especially given the high costs of construction.

  • “It’s only one out of probably many things that you need to undertake to make a real dent on the housing situation," Freemark said.
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