By Nathaniel Meyersohn | CNN
New York — Public support is building for changes to zoning codes and other laws that have dominated American housing policy for decades and restricted new development.
A new Pew Charitable Trusts poll shows broad public approval for several policy initiatives that would make it easier to build new housing, especially apartments.
The poll comes amid a severe housing shortage, a loose coalition of grassroots YIMBY leaders — short for Yes in My Backyard — and bipartisan housing policy reform efforts from Utah to Vermont.
“The results reflect Americans’ broad concern about housing costs,” Pew Charitable Trusts researchers said in a report.
The median home sale price in 2022 was $386,300, up 10.2% from 2021 and the highest on record, and housing construction has failed to keep up with demand. The US housing market is short some 6.5 million homes. Rents reached record highs last year, hitting $2,054, according to Redfin.
The Pew poll found strong support for policies such as legalizing accessory dwelling units, commonly known as granny flats, on single-family zoned areas; legalizing duplexes, triplexes and fourplexes; reforms to create affordable housing development near major transit; and simplifying the housing permitting process.
Efforts to expedite permitting processes gained the broadest support, with 86%, while at the lower end, 49% approved of the ideas of allowing smaller lots and homes to be built closer together.
The limits of support
Support for policies to allow more housing cut across party, region, race, income and gender lines, Pew found. The eight most popular proposals received majority support from Republicans, Democrats and independents. Nine of the 10 policy measures polled received majority support from both renters and homeowners.
Republicans and Democrats prioritized housing reform efforts for different reasons in some cases. More Republicans than Democrats identified fewer property regulations as an excellent or good reason for housing reforms, while more Democrats than Republicans chose reducing racial segregation as an excellent or good reason.
The poll, fielded in September among a sample of 5,000 US adults, is one of the largest to date on housing issues.
And there is evidence suggesting that pro-housing policies are achieving their intended effects, slowing the rocketship of housing prices.
In Minneapolis; Portland, Oregon; New Rochelle, New York; and Tysons Corner, Virginia, new zoning rules that allow more housing have helped slow rent growth, according to a study this year by Pew Charitable Trusts. Towns and cities in the same metro areas that did not reform zoning laws generally saw faster rent growth. While rents nationwide grew 31% nationwide from 2017 to 2023, rents in those four cities all grew under 5%, according to the study.
Despite the favorable polling on housing reforms, local political opposition to new housing development in single-family neighborhoods often can remain strong. People tend to be supportive of more housing in general, just as long as it’s not right next to them.
“One of the tricky parts of housing politics is that a lot of Americans sincerely believe that their city needs more housing but are then unenthusiastic about any specific housing development on their street,” said Salim Furth, a senior research fellow and director of the Urbanity project at George Mason University’s Mercatus Center. “A challenge for reformers is to resolve this inconsistency.”
For example, Connecticut, Arizona and New York have attempted zoning changes, but efforts have stalled amid blowback. One New York lawmaker warned of a “suburban uprising” if Gov. Kathy Hochul’s plan to build 800,000 new homes over a decade went through. The plan included changes to zoning laws in suburbs near rail stations.
Towns, cities and states led by both Republicans and Democrats are loosening zoning laws and reforming other policies in response to the housing crisis.
Roughly 75% of land that is zoned for housing in American cities is for private, single-family homes only.
In some suburbs, zoning laws make it illegal to build apartments in nearly all residential areas. Some municipalities have also made minimum lot sizes bigger and added height requirements. This has had the effect of encouraging ever-larger single-family homes and limiting housing options, like smaller houses.
In recent years, Minneapolis, Arlington, Gainesville, Charlotte, Walla Walla, Washington, and other cities have reformed single-family zoning laws in response to the housing crisis. Oregon, California, Washington, Montana and Maine have ended them statewide.
According to an August report from George Mason University’s Mercatus Center, more than 200 housing bills were introduced this year in at least 23 states.
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