More States See Zoning as Lever to Lower Housing Costs

By: - January 30, 2020 12:00 am

Supporters rally outside City Hall in Oakland, California, in favor of Democratic state Sen. Scott Wiener’s bill that would allow more housing to be built near public transportation. Lawmakers in several states have proposed overriding local zoning restrictions. Jeff Chiu/The Associated Press

This story was updated Jan. 30 to include news from California.

Read more State of the States 2020 coverage from Stateline.

California state Sen. Scott Wiener has a simple explanation for the Golden State’s affordable housing crisis: “Decades of bad housing policy.”

The Democrat particularly blames cities’ longtime embrace of single-family zoning, which he says has contributed to a housing shortage that’s pushing up rents and home prices and encouraging sprawl. “It’s not sustainable,” Wiener recently told Stateline.

As state lawmakers look for ways to bring down housing costs, a growing number are taking aim at the American dream of a family home surrounded by a white picket fence.

Wiener, for example, filed a high-profile bill that would have allowed developers to build duplexes and apartment buildings in some California neighborhoods currently zoned for single-family homes. While Wiener’s bill may not get far this session — the bill has until Friday to win state Senate approval, and senators voted down the bill 18-15 Wednesday — the debate over zoning is far from over. Not only are lawmakers expected to propose other land-use bills this year in California, but lawmakers in other states also have proposed overriding local zoning and building requirements.

The trend suggests that some people are souring on suburbia, said Richard Kahlenberg, director of K-12 equity and a senior fellow of the Century Foundation, a nonpartisan think tank based in New York City.

“Even white, middle-class people are facing an affordability crunch in certain jurisdictions,” he said. “That adds to the coalition of environmentalists and civil rights groups that have always known that single-family zoning is problematic.”

Environmentalists argue that denser neighborhoods reduce carbon emissions, Kahlenberg said, while civil rights groups oppose local rules that push out low-income residents, including minorities.

While homebuilders in general have cheered proposals that would cut local requirements, city leaders and some residents have objected to bills that would reduce their control over land-use decisions. The proposals also have divided affordable housing advocates, with some fearing that they’ll lead to more high-end apartments and expensive townhomes rather than units low-income people can afford.

In California, “there is this debate between market dynamics and the need to invest in some sort of subsidized housing,” said Matt Schwartz, president and CEO of the California Housing Partnership, a San Francisco-based nonprofit created by the legislature in 1988. 

Twenty-eight states and Washington, D.C., last year passed a variety of legislation that addresses the housing affordability problem, from tax credits for developers to rental assistance and eviction protections for residents, said Sarah Scherer, a policy associate at the National Conference of State Legislatures, a nonprofit with offices in Denver and D.C. California, Washington and Hawaii passed the most laws.

This year, legislators in eight states pre-filed housing bills before their sessions began, Scherer said.

Both Democratic and Republican governors are calling for affordable housing fixes. In New Hampshire, Republican Gov. Chris Sununu backs a pair of bills — filed by a bipartisan group of young lawmakers — that would offer localities more planning assistance and tax incentives and require planning and zoning boards to streamline building approvals.

“It really is an issue that affects everyone, but especially young people,” said Republican state Rep. Joe Alexander, who’s sponsoring one of the housing bills.

Among the diverse efforts, state zoning proposals have become a hot topic, said Flora Arabo, national senior director of state and local policy at Enterprise Community Partners, a housing nonprofit based in Columbia, Maryland. “I’ve only seen the conversation increasing.”

In addition to Wiener’s bill in California, Democrats have put forward legislation that would allow the construction of accessory dwelling units — also known as granny flats — or duplexes and townhomes on single-family plots in Virginia, Maryland and Nebraska.

Oregon last year became the first state to require most cities to allow duplexes on single-family properties, and larger cities to allow townhouses, triplexes and fourplexes.

Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker, a Republican, filed legislation that would let cities and towns make zoning changes by a simple majority vote.

“It’s market economics,” said Democratic Virginia state Del. Ibraheem Samirah, of his proposals to allow accessory dwelling units and duplexes on all single-family plots. “It’s a zero-cost solution.”

A Georgia bill would copy North Carolina and Arkansas and ban cities from requiring most one- or two-family homes to have a particular aesthetic, such as a certain number of windows. Supporters of the bill argue that such requirements violate private property rights and can raise development costs.

“I don’t want the government to tell me what color my house has to be,” said Georgia state Rep. Vance Smith, the bill’s Republican sponsor.

Wiener said his bill would increase the supply of both market-rate and affordable housing, and he recently announced amendments that would give cities more control over how they increase density.

But his critics aren’t satisfied. When Wiener held a news conference in Oakland this month to tout his Senate Bill 50, he was shouted down by members of an anti-homelessness group called Moms for Housing, who in an online statement argued that the bill would benefit “real estate speculators.”

Rising Rents

Americans struggle to find affordable rental housing nationwide — not just in expensive, coastal cities. “Everybody’s feeling the pinch,” said Chris Herbert, managing director of the Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University.

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Sophie Quinton

Sophie Quinton writes about fiscal and economic policy for Stateline. Previously, she wrote for National Journal.