Will Upzoning Help Housing Affordability?
Buying a home is, for most Americans, the most significant investment of their lives. Not only does homeownership help build equity for retirement, but it also can be the key to unlock societal upward mobility. But housing is not as affordable as it used to be.
The 2019 version of the National Low Income Housing Coalition’s Out of Reach report found that a full-time minimum wage worker could not afford a modest two-bedroom apartment in any U.S. city. And low-wage workers aren’t the only ones struggling.
The hourly wage necessary to afford a modest home without spending more than 30% of annual household income on housing is called the “housing wage.” In California, that wage is nearly $35/hour; in Kansas, it sits right around $16/hour.
In my home state of Connecticut, a minimum-wage worker earning $10.10/hour would have to work 81 hours a week to rent a modest one-bedroom house. To be able to purchase a typical two-bedroom home, the average worker would need to earn over $25/hour. My point in all of this is that we are experiencing a housing affordability crisis.
You might have heard some cities are trying to “ban” single-family housing. While this is a bit misleading, there are efforts across the country to engage in a residential zoning practice known as “upzoning,” or changing zoning laws to accommodate an increase in housing density. It’s basic economics: as supply goes up, demand and price go down.
Most cities are zoned for primarily single-family housing (the average is around 70%). However, vestiges of racial discrimination in housing and income inequality have created barriers to inter-community upward mobility. Upzoning could be a solution.
Over the past year or so, some states and cities have begun to craft upzoning legislation. Minneapolis led this charge by proposing the Minneapolis 2040 plan in December 2018, which relies heavily on upzoning to create more affordable housing.
In June of this year, Department of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson visited Minneapolis to meet with city leaders and discuss the proposed plan. One of the goals of Minneapolis 2040 is for every resident “to be able to afford and access quality housing through the city.” Carson said he would like to “see more cities follow the lead of Minneapolis and eliminate single-family zoning, opening up every neighborhood to higher-density housing.”
The plan has not been spared the effects of NIMBYism. Those in opposition to the plan have cited concerns over its implementation, including the question of diminishing home value with the introduction of duplexes, triplexes, and apartment buildings into historically single-family communities.
Progressive groups are concerned housing will be developed only in neighborhoods where it is cheapest to build, resulting in more displacement and less mobility for those already most impacted by zoning laws.
Builders are also concerned: City officials have touted the creation of residential construction jobs from this initiative, while also calling for a reduction in parking available for residents to encourage the use of public transit. This could prove difficult for builders who need to be able to haul equipment between jobsites and then park their trucks at home.
In response to the plan’s opponents, Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey told CityLab: “There’s always resistance, of course. It doesn’t mean that it’s not the right thing. I believe strongly that housing is a right. I believe that everyone should have a safe place to go home to at the end of the night, to rest their heads on a pillow and rejuvenate for the next day. Clearly that right is not afforded to everyone.”
Frey has been clear in his desire to combat the negative effects of non-inclusive zoning practices: “We need to make sure that the precision of our solutions match the precision of the harm initially inflicted…and that harm was precise.” Pending final action, the Minneapolis 2040 plan will take effect on Nov. 16.
We need solutions to make housing more affordable to more Americans and to make our communities more inclusive. Could upzoning be one of those solutions?