Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Cities should ease rigid permitting and zoning rules to help businesses and residents recover during the coronavirus pandemic, according to a trio of policy briefs out today by researchers at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University.

Why it matters: They are among the dullest City Hall tasks, but these decisions determine significant outcomes such as where housing can be built and whether restaurants are allowed to open in a particular neighborhood.

  • Flexibility will be key to boost chances of rebounding, which may lead to solutions to problems that have long plagued urban centers, argue researchers Emily Hamilton, Nolan Gray and Salim Furth.

1. Housing: Restrictions on the amount and type of housing allowed to be built are contributing to the public health crisis by causing overcrowding in some places and unsustainable rents in others.

  • Easing permitting restrictions on accessory dwelling units — or secondary units placed on the same lot as single-family housing, above a garage or in a basement — would help seniors wanting alternatives to nursing homes where COVID-19 has run rampant.
  • Relaxing building codes to allow for temporary homeless shelters would let homeless individuals safely physically distance from others.
  • Allowing low-cost housing like modern-day boarding houses or residential hotels could allow solo-living rather than with roommates, supporting public health now while providing affordable housing options in the future.

2. Commuting: Localities should take steps to prevent cars from clogging the roads when people slowly return to offices while likely avoiding public transit.

  • Zoning rule changes could allow entrepreneurs to start home-based businesses.
  • Congestion pricing schemes require drivers to pay for road use to reduce rush-hour bottlenecks and keep traffic circulating throughout the day. The paper argues that tolls should be allowed on urban interstates where they are currently banned.
  • Easing restrictions on e-bikes and e-scooters, such as no longer requiring a driver's license to operate them in some states, could help spur demand for non-car transportation — as would installing wider sidewalks and separate bike lanes, or keeping permanent the "slow streets" some cities established during the height of COVID-19.

3. Permits and zoning: "Regulatory wiggle room" can go a long way to letting businesses and restaurants open in new locations or allowing residential development in commercial zones, the researchers argue.

  • Speeding up permitting would allow pop-up businesses or simply give existing business owners leeway in shifting business plans to stay open — such as alcohol takeout or additional outdoor seating space at restaurants.
  • Temporary tax incentives on small investments to properties could help cities prevent vacant and run-down buildings.

The bottom line: "As state and local policymakers deal with a huge budget crisis in the coming months, they may be more focused on more urgent problems than longer-term issues of land-use regulation," said Emily Hamilton, Mercatus Center research fellow and one of the authors of the papers.

  • "But as business owners in general are struggling to stay solvent, we may see longer-term reform efforts."

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