The Obama administration wants to talk zoning. According to a paper it put out this morning, laws that restrict new development and require new buildings to come with new parking, along with slow permitting processes and arbitrary preservation regulations, create barriers to opportunity for working families.
The White House’s Housing Development Tookit starts with the belief that strict land use regulations are hurting the United States economy:
“Over the past three decades, local barriers to housing development have intensified… The accumulation of such barriers - including zoning, other land use regulations, and lengthy development approval processes - has reduced the ability of many housing markets to respond to growing demand. The growing severity of undersupplied housing markets is jeopardizing housing affordability for working families, increasing income inequality by reducing less-skilled workers’ access to high-wage labor markets, and stifling GDP [editor’s note: Pete Rodrigue wrote about this for us last week] growth by driving labor migration away from the most productive regions.”
The report goes on to say that while preventing new housing development can be environmentally beneficial, it can also amount to “laws plainly designed to exclude multifamily or affordable housing.”
It also draws a direct link between zoning laws and both inequality and inequity in the US:
“When new housing development is limited region-wide, and particularly precluded in neighborhoods with political capital to implement even stricter local barriers, the new housing that does get built tends to be disproportionately concentrated in low-income communities of color, causing displacement and concerns of gentrification in those neighborhoods.”
Here’s what we can do about the problem
The report urges places to modernize their zoning laws, and suggests ten tools to do so. They include:
1. Eliminating off-street parking requirements: All over the country, there are rules that require new buildings to come with a certain amount of parking. Building that parking means not building housing on the land, which developers would often prefer to do. It also means encouraging more people to drive.
Reducing parking minimum requirements can increase the housing supply as well as demand for frequent, reliable bus or rail service, which can make it easier for people to get to jobs.
Cutting parking requirements for developments located near a transit stop can increase the supply of housing units and lower costs. The availability of transit reduces the need for a vehicle and offers more space for development.
2. Allowing accessory dwelling units: New housing doesn’t have to only be brand new buildings. A lot of people would rent out their basements, attics, or small cottages in their back yards into accessory dwelling units (ADUs) if their zoning simply allowed it. Often, the people renting these units have limited incomes, like someone starting their career or an older adult.
Thanks to its recent zoning code change, it’s now easier to rent out ADUs in the District.
3. Using inclusionary zoning:Inclusionary zoning requires a specific amount of new housing units to be “affordable,” where the rent or the selling price is lower than the market rate and the units are only available to people whose incomes fall below a certain level. In exchange, developers get something called a density bonus, which allows them to build more market rate units than they otherwise would be.
The White House’s toolkit cites DC and Montgomery County as examples of places that have pushed for housing affordability via inclusionary zoning. It also cites inclusionary zoning as a reason for better educational outcomes for low-income children.
This matters in our region. A lot.
No single action will solve the housing affordability issues many cities face, but reducing barriers to development can increase opportunities for working families. As too often happens:
“The long commutes that result from workers seeking out affordable housing far from job centers place a drain on their families, their physical and mental well-being, and negatively impact the environment through increased gas emissions.”
The White House’s report relates to our region because we are one of the handful of regions in the nation where restrictive zoning has become a significant bottleneck. Detroit and Baltimore have the opposite problem; their vacant housing isn’t getting used.
This problem is impacting metro areas to different extents. It’s worst in the Bay Area, but New York, Seattle, Boston, and others all have similar problems… and so do we.