Housing crisis defined

Here in Gainesville we will likely impose a moratorium on development so we can try to work out some longstanding issues involving gentrification, affordable housing and equitable development. Ours is a university city so I’m sure we are capable of coming up with creative solutions to (so far) intractable problems.

But while we’re waiting for the city to get on with it I thought I’d offer up a little reading list so we all better understand what the issues and the obstacles are.

By the way, catch my upcoming Sunday column in the Gainesville Sun for a bit more on this always volatile issue.

First, let’s try to define the problem, shall we.

I recommend this essay in Strong Towns that basically lays out the difficulty communities experience in trying to come to grips with affordable housing and equitable development. Joe Cartwright says that when it comes to housing, cities face two different public policy goals that would seem to be mutually exclusive.

“The same municipal governments that require that housing on scarce urban land be taken up only with resource-intensive, high-building-cost single family homes; that use zoning to separate out unwanted apartments, shops, transit lines, and other uses on the grounds that they might hurt home values; and promote neighborhood beautification and other projects on the grounds that they will raise housing values, also issue affordable housing reports trying to understand why home prices aren’t lower, and levy ‘impact fees’ on new development for the alleged crime of, you know, raising home values.

“We are, in conclusion, profoundly conflicted as a nation when it comes to housing,” he continues, “we want it to be affordable, but we also want its prices to rise fast enough to be valuable as a financial investment. That’s a contradiction we need to acknowledge if our housing policy debate—and, ultimately, our housing policy—is going to be coherent and constructive.”

For a deeper dive into the housing conundrum, I recommend this Streetsblog USA piece by Dorothy Walker, who is founding president of the American Planning Association. If we want to so something about racial justice in our communities, she says, we’ve got to take a hard look at locally based zoning codes and land use regulations that have been designed explicitly to foster racial and economic inequities.

“Local control is why so much land is reserved for single-family housing — raising property values while walling off much of the city to all but the wealthy.  Local control also has thwarted the development of denser communities that enable more affordable housing, ignoring the need to serve the housing needs of both new and existing residents,” she writes.

As an example she cites her own university city, Berkeley, Ca. “Berkeley can claim credit for being a sanctuary city, for its open-mindedness and for being a birthplace of student activism. Yet for 50 years it has suppressed new housing of all kinds and now has an almost unsolvable problem of affordability and homelessness.”

She continues: “The fact is, local control over land-use decisions has obstructed efforts for racial justice and social equity in housing since the beginning of our profession. As long as the people who own land and are already housed have total control over growth and change in their communities, we will never achieve true racial justice and social equity. And, as long as local control enforces prohibitions on urban growth, we will sprawl ever-outward into green fields and agricultural lands, exacerbating climate change and land degradation.”

OK, so the obvious answer it to get rid of single family residential zoning, like they’re doing in Minneapolis, right? Not so fast. It’s just not that simple, according to Emily Hamilton’s essay in City Lab.

“What’s needed is more “missing middle” housing. The term refers to any low-rise construction that is denser than detached houses: backyard cottages, townhouses, small walk-up apartment buildings,” she writes. “Although single-unit zoning limits these useful types of housing, so do myriad other restrictions on how and where housing can be built: minimum lot size requirements, parking requirements, height limits and more.”

No, if we want to do affordable housing right, we’re going to need to do a deeper dig into our code book. She writes “if dozens of rules limit where and how new housing can be built, getting rid of one constraint doesn’t accomplish much.”

Hamilton points to the city of Houston as a success story in that regard. “It doesn’t have use-zoning, which means that housing — including apartments and other multifamily housing — is permitted anywhere private covenants don’t restrict it. In 1998, Houston policy makers reduced the minimum-required lot size for a house from 5,000 square feet down to 1,400 square feet on all of the land within the city’s I-610 loop. This made it possible to replace a single-family house with three. In 2013, the 1,400-square-foot minimum lot size requirement was expanded to cover the entire city. Thousands of townhouses have since been built that wouldn’t have been permitted before.”

Ok, got it. But, really, what’s the urgency? After all, we’ve been coasting along for years on the same old codes. To answer that question check out another City Lab piece, one with the ominous headline “COVID-19 is killing affordable housing, just as it’s needed most.”

“While housing advocates have been calling attention to the imminent danger of evictions and homelessness amid a pandemic and economic downturn, the Covid-19 crisis also stands to exacerbate the nation’s sizable affordable housing shortage, thanks to a brutal convergence of factors,” writes Patrick Sisson. “It’s clear that, as out-of-work Americans get displaced, the need for affordable housing will only go up in the short term. The long-term question is, can government action find a way to address the growing gap?”

And then there’s this Route 50 analysis “The need to keep renters housed is getting more urgent, advocates say.”

“Americans owe more than $21.5 billion in overdue rent, according to one recent analysis that underlined the urgency of the housing crisis facing American renters as the coronavirus pandemic drags on. With eviction moratoriums ending in many cities and states, experts are warning of an impending wave of families being forced out of their homes with devastating collateral consequences if immediate action is not taken to keep people housed.”

And make no mistake, when the eviction hammer finally falls it’s not going to be pretty. And the people who are going to get hurt worst are the ones who are already suffering from a shortage of affordable housing.

“By one estimate, some 40 million Americans could be evicted during the public health crisis,” reports CNBC.  “It’s like nothing we’ve ever seen,”  said John Pollock, coordinator of the National Coalition for a Civil Right to Counsel.”

That story, titled “How the eviction crisis will look across the U.S.” continues: “People of color are especially vulnerable. While almost half of White tenants say they’re highly confident they can continue to pay their rent, just 26% of African-American tenants could say the same.”

So yeah, if we’re ever going to do something about homelessness, equitable development and affordable housing in this city, now is a pretty good time to act. And for a helpful primer on the issues at hand I’d recommend this 2017 Strong Towns analysis by Spencer Gardner titled “The 5 immutable laws of affordable housing,” and “3 strategies for achieving affordable housing.”

“The high cost of housing increasingly impacts cities of all sizes, and it’s an incredibly challenging and controversial topic. Left-leaning folks might point to big developers or prejudiced, “NIMBY” residents as the causes that keep people from securing and maintaining affordable housing. Right-leaning people may blame the government for its overreaching regulations into private housing matters, or suggest that people who choose to live in expensive cities need to manage those consequences themselves.

“Spencer does not propose a one-size-fits-all solution nor does he point to one or two root causes of affordable housing challenges. Rather, he sets forth a framework of concepts to keep in mind as you think about how to improve housing affordability in your community. His ideas apply whether you live in rural Nevada, New York City, or anywhere in between.

I would pay special attention to point 3: If your zoning code mandates expensive housing, housing will be expensive.” And strategy 1: “Reduce minimum lot sizes and reduce density restrictions in single-family zones.”

And finally, from Wikipedia here is a primer on exclusionary zoning: What it is, why we have it and why it’s so hard to get rid of.

“Exclusionary zoning was introduced in the early 1900s, typically to prevent racial and ethnic minorities from moving into middle- and upper-class neighborhoods. Municipalities seek to use zoning to safeguard the health, property, and public welfare by controlling the design, location, use, or occupancy of all buildings and structures by the regulated and orderly development of land and land uses. That sometimes inadvertently limits the supply of available housing units, such as by prohibiting multi-family residential dwellings or setting minimum lot size requirements, which may deter racial and economic integration.”

More later.

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