Allison Zaucha for The Washington Post via Getty Images
What if residents on a single block could make their own decision to allow denser housing?
When Sacramento proposed changing its zoning rules to allow four homes on land that had permitted just one, something remarkable happened: The reform passed city council, unanimously, with little of the outrage over new housing thatâ€™s long haunted California politics. The public comments were overwhelmingly supportive. Politicians lined up to praise the measure, which passed this January â€” even San Francisco Mayor London Breed, who presides over a city where such â€śfourplexesâ€ť are mostly illegal. Sacramento now joins other U.S. cities, including Portland and Minneapolis, that have legalized the construction of more homes in more places.
If ever there were a moment for pro-housing, â€śYes In My Backyardâ€ť reforms that allow for the development of denser housing, it should be now. In many U.S. cities, housing costs have ballooned beyond the reach of millions of Americans, and evidence suggests that restrictions on where you can build are largely to blame. Local reforms like Sacramentoâ€™s are a growing trend, although so far, they remain relatively rare among cities with expensive housing markets.
Even in cities that have passed modest reforms, the politics of local planning often stand in the way of more ambitious change. We know what helps fight high housing prices: loosening minimum lot size requirements that donâ€™t allow homes to be built on small tracts, for instance, or allowing backyard apartments and â€śmissing middleâ€ť housing like duplexes and triplexes. The problem is not identifying reforms to allow more homes; itâ€™s getting them passed at the city or state level. Without such reform, in local planning meetings across the U.S. where decisions about new developments get made, the voices of opponents are frequently the loudest and most influential. What passes for community participation in America is too often limited to a privileged few with the time and resources to attain an outsize influence on the workings of government.
Take the example of Connecticut, among the priciest and most segregated states in the U.S., and one that hasnâ€™t passed this kind of reform. In Fairfield, once home to General Electricâ€™s headquarters, new housing projects are forced to undergo years of litigation. Desegregate CT, an advocacy group, found that a triplex or fourplex can be built without going through additional approvals in just 2% of Connecticut, while single-family homes are legal in 91% of the state. While polls show that voters want more affordable housing, suburban homeowners have successfully blocked change. These homeowners have a stake in keeping decisions at the municipality level where a few powerful and vocal individuals can block developments that are in the interests of the broader community. In opposition to a state bill to place more zoning decisions in the hands of the state, yard signs have recently appeared demanding Connecticut â€śKeep Planning and Zoning Local.â€ť
But what if thereâ€™s a way to overcome the political obstacles in the way of development with support from local stakeholders? Not a substitute to state and local housing laws, but a complement: what we call hyperlocal zoning reform. Local governments would give streets and blocks the right to decide for themselves if they want to allow denser housing. Neighbors could pick from a menu of modest reforms, from reducing minimum lot sizes and green-lighting â€śgranny flatsâ€ť to allowing missing middle housing and apartments. A single street or block could simply hold a vote and reach a goal the city sets â€” say, a 60% â€śyesâ€ť from residents. One key feature is that hyperlocal zoning would be a supplement to existing zoning codes, meaning it could simply be implemented by a planning department, and wouldnâ€™t stop cities from passing other broader reforms.
For homeowners in pricey markets like Seattle or Boston, choosing to add a granny flat or subdividing a single-family home can be a financial no-brainer. And right now, restrictive zoning prevents them from realizing those gains. They could try to get their own lots upzoned, but at the scale of hundreds or thousands of landowners â€” the scale at which zoning decisions are often made â€” negotiation and agreement are incredibly difficult. The costs of reaching agreement rise as more people are involved, as do the perceived risks as a proposalâ€™s scope expands. This is why experts from the late economist Robert Nelson to Yale Law Sc