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Guest opinion: Upzoning an easy tool for tackling housing affordability crisis

By Ronan Spencer - | Dec 7, 2023

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Ronan Spencer

Single-family zoning laws have been around since 1916, originating in Berkeley, California. Since their debut, they have caused quite a crisis. These restrictive and tight laws have contributed to the lack of affordable housing due to their nature. Single-family zoning laws constrain a certain area to only build a single-family detached house on a plot of land, banning the building of townhouses or duplexes in that area. Despite their controversial origin and their less-than-stellar track record, American cities still falter under these laws, unable to change them, leading to cities like San Jose to be zoned 94% for single-family detached housing as of 2019.

Housing affordability has always been a conversation for Americans, but with the recent affordability crisis, it appears people are more in tune to just how expensive a house is. With 74% of Americans being worried about the lack of affordable housing, its clear that there is a need for change. Single-family detached zoning regulations have prevented developments and cities from any attempted efforts into affordable housing. With houses becoming more expensive at a rate faster than wages have risen, younger Americans are practically shut out of the housing market as a whole. In Utah since 2015, the median sales price of a home in Salt Lake County has increased from $269,000 to $405,000, ranking the area fourth among 100 metropolitan areas for housing price increase, according to the Gardner Policy Institute. Upzoning provides a simple solution, by loosening up the restrictions of lots, we have the ability to develop affordable housing projects on them or build more dense housing in general. An Urban Institute journal article from March 29 states “reforms that loosen restrictions are associated with a statistically significant 0.8 percent increase in housing supply within three to nine years of reform passage.” The clear solution is to loosen the restrictions and increase the supply. So why do some Americans disagree?

Let’s take some issues to their highest ground, starting with housing prices. Upzoning has been shown to effectively decrease rent for nearby tenants, while also providing a new development and increasing housing supply. A study published in The Review of Economics and Statistics in 2023 found, “The average new building lowers nearby rents by 5% to 7% relative to trend, translating into a savings of $100 to $159 per month.” While the study focused on the effects of large apartments built in low-income areas, this result isn’t a singular finding.

Affordable housing projects also aren’t a policy made to tank your home value; in many instances, they can help increase it. A study on affordable housing published in the Journal of Political Economy in 2019 found that “development revitalizes low-income neighborhoods, increasing house prices 6.5 percent, lowering crime rates, and attracting racially and income diverse populations.” The only decrease found was among higher-income areas with a reduction of 2.5%. No matter the concern, the benefits outweigh the harms. Affordable housing projects built by upzoning can help increase nearby home values and decrease rent for renters.

Another common criticism comes from the idea of NIMBYism (Not In My Backyard), which focuses on the sanctity of a neighborhood and ensuring the ideals of a neighborhood are protected. A typical horror story used by these groups is that of a skyscraper being built in somebody’s backyard due to upzoning or their house being demolished due to these laws. The NIMBYs have genuine concerns, worried about affordable housing tanking their property values and increase crime. However, upzoning has been proven not to cause either of their concerns. Its also important to consider that the NIMBYs aren’t the majority; they are simply the loudest voice. In Washington when zoning reform was passed, the law was popular among citizens, with 61% of respondents expressing support on a 2022 Urbanist poll. Development in all aspects should be done with consideration and public opinion in mind, and while NIMBYs’ concerns should be taken to heart, there is most likely no chance of a skyscraper being built in a family’s backyard or a family’s house being demolished.

Upzoning may seem just like an affordable housing policy, but it taps into many benefits outside of its original scope. We see the cities benefit because upzoning tackles a lot of pressing problems for cities, one of which being greenhouse gases. Higher density and more urban forms of housing use less energy for heating and subsequently see a reduction in greenhouse gases. The single-family detached home that we see everywhere usually isn’t very energy efficient, considering the average family single unit lot uses nearly three times as much energy on housing than the average urban multifamily unit. Upzoning is able to tackle this. By providing the opportunity for an energy-efficient and affordable housing option, we can help reduce energy usage and greenhouse gases if just by a little. To many cities, this is a win-win because this policy has the ability to tackle two pressing issues with one solution.

With young American families struggling to afford to buy a home or pay monthly rent, it’s clear we have a problem on our hands. It is practically impossible to ignore single-family detached housing zoning codes’ contribution to our current housing affordability and availability crisis. Upzoning provides the solution we have been looking for; it decreases rent, increases housing availability and hasn’t contributed negatively in the majority of the cities it’s been implemented in. When we are discussing housing availability and the future of our states, the first topic should be upzoning.

Ronan Spencer is a student at Utah State University studying Political Science. As a member of the Government Relations Council, he is interested in different policy solutions and the impact they have.


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