Spotlight Exclusives

Cities, States Use “Upzoning” to Spur Affordable Housing Growth

Kalena Thomhave Kalena Thomhave, posted on

Finding the right house was of paramount importance when Portland, Oregon resident Holly Balcom and her partner started their family. It needed to be large enough for a growing household and in a family-friendly area. The only problem was that the couple was in a major American city.

You may have heard about the gentrification of Portland and its affordable housing crisis, but the problem extends across the country. Nationally, home prices are rising twice as fast as wages, and most renters say they cannot afford to buy a home. When new housing is built, it’s typically priced on the more expensive end. The resultant shortage of affordable housing pushes people to live farther from the cities where they work and to rent when they should be in positions to buy.

Balcom was more fortunate than most: eventually, her family settled in a house in the city near a park. That first summer, as Balcom recalls, was desperately, miserably hot. Yet across the street, the park was full of cars not just during the days, but at night too. There were families of people living in those cars, and they lived there all summer.

As Balcom asked herself why a parking lot of people couldn’t find homes, a vacant fast food restaurant down the street was set to be turned into an 89-unit apartment building. Many of her neighbors were outraged, concerned about traffic patterns and parking.

“You’d rather have the [abandoned restaurant] than new neighbors?” she remembers thinking. A few years later, she joined an advocacy group to push for upzoning—changing zoning law to allow for high-density land use. This year, Oregon passed a law that does just that. Minneapolis passed a citywide vision to do the same last December. And other states and localities may well follow.

According to Sarah Mickelson, policy director at the National Low Income Housing Coalition, there is a clear underlying reason for the affordable housing crisis: a shortage of housing that’s available and affordable to those with the very lowest incomes. This shortage affects all but the very wealthiest, and it’s at least partly driven by land use laws that control what can and cannot be built in certain areas of a city or town. In areas that are zoned for single-family homes, it is illegal to build more than one unit on one lot of land.

The history of single-family zoning is a troubled one. After World War II, this type of zoning became a way for cities to enact exclusionary racial and class-based zoning without tying policies specifically to race. People of color, with less wealth and fewer assets than whites, were more likely to live in less expensive, multi-family units like apartment buildings, and so even as redlining was banned, segregation continued.

It also means that there’s less housing. The shortage “has the most severe impact on the lowest income people,” says Mickelson, as they are forced to spend more of their income on high rents. Because of what Mickelson terms “a market failure,” those with the lowest incomes can’t be served by the private sector without government resources. Developers just can’t build that cheaply. And as a result, low-income people are competing for the same units that would otherwise be available for those living at the median. Middle-class renters, then, see an increase in their housing costs too. You see massive single-family units take up the available land in a city, so that sprawl—the fastest-growing type of land use—intensifies, as homes and apartment buildings must be built farther and farther from the city center.

At the local level, the biggest step to combat this problem is by reforming what Mickelson refers to as “the barriers that have been restricting the supply of housing that push up costs for everyone”—zoning and land use laws.

Middle housing” offers new options—mid-density housing like duplexes and townhouses that can be both more affordable and provide more housing with less land. Over the past few years, advocacy campaigns have cropped up to pass upzoning laws to allow middle housing, and end single-family zoning, as one answer to the affordable housing crisis.

This August, Oregon’s governor signed a law that will ban single-family zoning in cities and towns across the state: In towns with populations greater than 10,000, duplexes will be allowed. In cities with more than 25,000 people, triplexes, fourplexes, attached townhomes, and cottage clusters will be permitted. And Minneapolis passed a far-reaching comprehensive plan that includes a vision to phase out single-family zoning and allow duplexes and triplexes. A recent bill in California that would have allowed multi-family housing near transit centers in large cities across the state saw a lot of media attention, but failed in committee this spring. Montgomery County in Maryland, one of the wealthiest counties in the nation, last month voted in favor of allowing residents to build accessory apartments—like in-law units—within its single-family zones.

Oregon Governor Kate Brown

In Minneapolis, the city passed a comprehensive plan that will allow triplexes across the city, fourplexes in the city’s core, and will eliminate minimum parking requirements for developers. The key to the plan’s support and ultimate December 2018 passage was engagement with the city’s residents—as Anna Nelson with the advocacy group Neighbors for More Neighbors describes it, “making sure everyone had a voice.” In Minneapolis, more than half of city residents are renters. But when the city held listening sessions about zoning reform, the usual audience leaned wealthy, white, and homeowning. So, the city commission tasked with developing the plan took years to engage the city: they went out into neighborhoods, attended festivals and held other city events to reach folks, and tweaked the plan based on resident feedback.

Oregon’s law passed the state house with bipartisan support in May. Behind the legislators were also private developers and realtors, alongside housing advocacy groups. That coalition was key to the law’s success, says Sean Carpenter, communications and media relations manager at 1000 Friends of Oregon, an advocacy group that supported the law.

“When you talk about banning single-family home zoning,” Carpenter says, “it sounds really scary.” That’s why so much of the work revolved around simply explaining what the law would and wouldn’t do. (Did homeowners need to be scared their homes would be bulldozed? No.)

Part of that education centered around how increased density is necessary to combat climate change. Single-family homes produce a significantly bigger carbon footprint than multi-family units, and denser neighborhoods also means more cars off the street, as people are more likely to walk or bike to run errands and visit friends.

Obviously, these laws have their critics. You may have seen battles between groups referred to as NIMBYs (Not in My Backyard) and YIMBYs (Yes in My Backyard) play out in your own town or city. (Balcom’s advocacy group is called Portland YIMBYs.) Opponents are worried how change will affect their neighborhoods, and that increased density will too quickly alter the rhythms of their neighborhoods: high-rise apartments overshadowing single-family homes, too many cars on the street, increased crime. Profit-driven developers, they argue, will never understand what it means to preserve the character of a neighborhood.

Minneapolis saw a strong front of opposition, with some residents—mostly wealthier homeowners—placing ominous red signs in their yards warning that homes will be destroyed if the plan passed and that it would cause new housing prices to increase. The backlash inspired the city to loosen the requirement to allow fourplexes to merely triplexes.

Some city councils in Oregon also blanched at the bill, calling the statewide policy a doomed “one-size-fits-all” approach that disrespects local control. “You don’t win by destroying neighborhoods to get a few missing middle housing units,” said neighborhood advocate Paul Conte to Eugene’s Register-Guard, arguing that increased density will strain infrastructure, especially in older neighborhoods.

Opposition helped lead to the California bill failing this spring—in general, lawmakers from cities supported the bill and those from the suburbs opposed it, highlighting the significant influence of suburban, homeowning interests.

Change, however, will likely be slow and gradual, and the economics lesson from Mickelson suggest that with greater supply—which one will see years from now, as we need to give developers time to build—housing costs should indeed fall.

Of course, reforming zoning laws is only one piece of the puzzle that will solve the affordable housing crisis. For the very poorest people, these laws won’t have much of an effect—developers won’t be building for them. Mickelson points to strong federal investment in public housing as what’s crucial for those in poverty, which many Democratic presidential contenders have prioritized.

Visions like the comprehensive plan, says Nelson, “definitely [are] not the solution, [but] part of solution.”

Today, Balcom’s family lives in one of the densest neighborhoods in Portland. It’s within walking distance to her work and her son’s preschool. Near her home is a five-plex unit, as well as a four-story apartment building (the neighborhood was built a century ago, when these options were legal). Partly as a result of the mixed housing types, the neighborhood is more diverse—by both race and income—than the average Portland neighborhood. She bought her home from an older couple who wanted to downsize but stay in the neighborhood; they moved into a condo down the street. Balcom says you wouldn’t know her home is a duplex unless you counted the mailboxes.

Explaining land use policy reform is decidedly wonky. Instead, Balcom says, “I wish I could take everybody on a tour through my neighborhood.”

Kalena Thomhave is a freelance writer on poverty & inequality.

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