White House Calls for Increased Density to Address Housing Affordability

The latest column in the Chapel Hill News by OrangePolitics Editors Travis Crayton and Molly De Marco cites recent releases from the White House calling for increased density in urban development to address the chronic national problem of housing affordability. These are just the type of strategies that we have been supporting on this blog for Orange County. Read the whole column below:

The nation’s housing shortage and affordability crisis have gotten so bad that President Obama has elevated the usually local issue of housing development to the national stage.

It’s not hard to see why: Housing shortages have led to skyrocketing rents and home prices, which are pricing out working families, increasing wealth inequality, and holding back economic growth nationwide.

In September, the Obama Administration released a white paper (http://bit.ly/obamahdt) that takes a deep dive into the causes and effects of the national housing shortage.

Many of the causes the report identifies will be familiar to regular readers of our column: restrictive zoning rules that prohibit or severely limit construction of multifamily housing; arbitrary preservation regulations and zoning overlays; off-street parking minimums; and slow, uncertain, and confusing regulatory approval processes.

Collectively, these kinds of regulations contribute to exclusionary zoning, practices that keep people out of communities and away from job centers.

Here in Chapel Hill, rents have climbed year after year as more people look to live in our community, close to the major job centers at UNC and UNC Health Care. Home prices have risen just as fast, making owning a home out of reach for more people, particularly younger people, people of color, and those who are less well off.

These local trends provide a good example of what the White House describes in its report. In Chapel Hill, the development approval process is costly, time-intensive, and fraught with uncertainty. Many who would build here simply go elsewhere rather than risk millions of dollars, leaving only those who can afford the high cost of development to build housing that will make a return on their hefty investment.

We also have preservation regulations, such as “neighborhood conservation districts,” that further restrict the construction of new housing and close off large areas of town from any change, including reasonable increases in residential density that could help to alleviate our housing shortage. Parking requirements and low-density, single-family zoning, common throughout town, perpetuate development of housing that most people simply can’t access.

The Obama Administration report outlines a number of policies local governments can implement to tackle housing shortages and housing affordability:

  • Establish “by-right” development, which allows new construction without approval from a governing body, avoiding the uncertainty and cost of approval processes.
  • Tax vacant land or donate it to nonprofit developers.
  • Streamline and/or shorten development processes and timelines.
  • Eliminate off-street parking requirements, which drive up the cost of housing and promote unsustainable dependence on cars.
  • Enact high-density and multifamily zoning to allow construction of a variety of housing options that accommodate more people more efficiently.
  • Establish density bonuses to encourage construction of affordable housing by allowing greater density in desireable areas like downtown.

Not all of the Obama Administration’s recommendations are an ideal fit for our community given challenges with state law, for example. But many deserve serious consideration – right away. The housing crunch we are experiencing locally is not unique to our community –we’re not special in that respect, and we can learn from the many communities that are working to expand housing options to make room for more, and more types of, people.


If you don't go read the entire paper from the Obama administration (you really should), at least read the first two summary paragraphs, which I quote in their entirety below because I think they are so important.

Over the past three decades, local barriers to housing development have intensified, particularly in the high-growth metropolitan areas increasingly fueling the national economy. The accumulation of such barriers – including zoning, other land use regulations, and lengthy development approval processes – has reduced the ability of many housing markets to respond to growing demand. The growing severity of undersupplied housing markets is jeopardizing housing affordability for working families, increasing income inequality by reducing less-skilled workers’ access to high-wage labor markets, and stifling GDP growth by driving labor migration away from the most productive regions. By modernizing their approaches to housing development regulation, states and localities can restrain unchecked housing cost growth, protect homeowners, and strengthen their economies.

Locally-constructed barriers to new housing development include beneficial environmental protections, but also laws plainly designed to exclude multifamily or affordable housing. Local policies acting as barriers to housing supply include land use restrictions that make developable land much more costly than it is inherently, zoning restrictions, off-street parking requirements, arbitrary or antiquated preservation regulations, residential conversion restrictions, and unnecessarily slow permitting processes. The accumulation of these barriers has reduced the ability of many housing markets to respond to growing demand. 


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