The United States is in the throes of a housing crisis, and California has been hit particularly hard. The costs of buying and renting are rising much faster than wages, and more Americans than ever think homeownership is an unrealistic goal – including 48% of renters, according to a survey. One of the main causes is the Herculean efforts by opponents of zoning reform to preserve the archaic regimes that restrict most residential land in the United States to single-family use – 61% in 2019.
Overzoning some of these single-family areas for multi-family use would help alleviate the shortage, as more residential units become available with the construction of new duplexes and triplexes, with the benefit of giving individuals more freedom over this. that they can do with their own land. Likewise, it would allow a freer market to decide which neighborhoods remain single-family and which begin to reflect a growing preference for an urban-suburban synthesis.
Some homeowners are concerned that the end of single-family use will reduce property values. But in reality, as Matthew Yglesias observed, local land use decisions tend to “systematically undervalue the value of building more homes.” Certainly, the owners concerned are not a cabal. Like all of us, they follow what seems to be in their best economic interest: fewer units in their neighborhood, scarcity now in demand. Their instinct, however, is wrong, at least on a large scale.
Two economists estimated that the “strict restrictions on the supply of new housing” from 1964 to 2009 reduced “overall growth in the United States” by 36%. Ouch. And a major cause of that, as Harvard economist Edward Glaeser put it, is “entrenched interests – like the landlords who control local zoning boards and the wealthy co-op residents who oppose any change in ownership. neighborhood – which limit construction in productive places.
Last month, the New York Times ran an article about the planned conversion of a single-family lot in San Diego to a rental triplex. Some owners nearby were unhappy. A longtime resident lamented the loss of the “American dream of living in a single family neighborhood”. Such expectations, that the character of suburban neighborhoods will not and should never change, are not only offensive to those who despise extra-market efforts to maintain the status quo.
Without movement in the joints, all of the social ills that accompany artificially restrictive housing markets will escalate. And, all things considered, the average reform proponent doesn’t want or expect most suburbs to be remodeled.
State and local governments, unconvinced by assurances that reform would hardly spell the end of most single-family neighborhoods, could soon experience the downstream effects of lower homeownership rates, high rents, and housing costs. increase in homelessness. Unfortunately for the average taxpayer, things often have to go a long way – shake windows and shake walls, as Dylan sang – before authorities take any meaningful action.
And the fate of California embodies this trend. Its housing shortage is arguably the worst in the country, with dozens of its towns and villages suffering the worst effects of decades of increasingly outdated zoning laws. Fresno, once one of the state’s cheapest large cities, is now virtually “unaffordable.” Never mind the homeless crises in Greater Los Angeles and the Bay Area. After years of dragging its feet, the state government was finally forced to take drastic action – perhaps less drastic if the issue had been resolved sooner.
In September, Governor Gavin Newsom signed Senate Bill 9, which, as Slate writes, “effectively abolishes single-family zoning in the country’s largest state,” “allows[ing] owners to divide their lots or convert their homes to duplexes, regardless of local zoning. However, just because the law is drastic does not mean that it will succeed. California’s recent decision is significant, but local NIMBYism remains a strong enemy. In a recent poll, only 55% of California homeowners were in favor of building more homes in the state.
Other states and municipalities can learn from the costs of California’s failure to act sooner. Oregon in 2019 passed statewide overzoning for cities over 10,000. The debate in other states is getting closer and closer to reform. It helps that various groups have started to overcome obstacles to collective action. Upzoning has the support of a diverse coalition, including the AARP, the NAACP (which has led the legal charge for decades), environmentalists, libertarians and Millennials.
It’s logic. America’s social and economic practices and preferences have changed over the past decades – societies are constantly changing. But our legal geography has not followed. Housing costs remain an albatross around the neck of a changing country. Upzoning more single-family neighborhoods for multi-family use is a must for any comprehensive plan to alleviate the rampant housing crisis in the United States.
Sam Spiegelman is an associate attorney at the Robert A. Levy Center for Constitutional Studies at the Cato Institute.