NIMBY concerns about affordable housing even when it is not adjacent to single-family homes

A proposed project in northwest Chicago that would include some affordable housing units has raised concerns from residents…who do not live adjacent to the property:

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But the plans have not been embraced by all in the 41st Ward and its neighborhoods filled with postwar bungalows and ranch-style homes. Though the complex would be located in a far stretch of the city next to offices and hotels bordering Park Ridge, residents say they fear it will congest traffic and overcrowd schools.

John Frano, who lives about a mile away in Oriole Park, said the apartment complex will create too much bustle in a section of the city known for being more serene and spacious…

Retired Chicago police Sgt. Salvatore Reina, a longtime owner of a two-flat in Oriole Park, said he opposes the Glenstar tax break partly because it feels unfair to smaller landlords like him. He added that he worries about having to bid against the potentially lower rents in the future complex…

“These neighborhoods are not made for massive multiunit buildings,” Reina said. “When you bring more people in, other issues are going to arise with that too. Who knows what they are? Some could just be quality-of-life issues.”

While there is more at play here – the role of aldermanic prerogative and how exclusion shapes residential patterns – these are common NIMBY concerns: traffic, the effect on schools, large buildings, and how might move into the new units. At the same time, if you cannot build affordable housing units here, where can they be constructed? Even the location of affordable housing units in a building similar in size to adjacent buildings and not adjacent to single-family homes leads to such responses.

The reason I emphasize the proximity of residents is that I found when studying proposals for land or buildings from religious groups (here and here) proximity of residents to the property appeared linked to the concerns raised. Those who have purchased a home or housing unit often do not like the idea that someone wants to significantly alter the building or property next to you.

This is not the case here. Affordable housing is so undesirable in the United States for established homeowners and residents that it is difficult to construct. There are other barriers at play as well but consistent and loud opposition from residents in the community is common. They view affordable housing as a threat rather than as housing that could help local residents or workers, let alone help the larger city or region.

Looking to global examples to address housing crunches in expensive cities

Housing is a very difficult issue to address at the national level. Can the United States look to examples abroad?

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Some suggest that Japan is the model to follow. There, rental prices have largely remained flat over the last 25 years, according to data from the country’s statistics bureau. The reason is that the government controls zoning nationally and is more open to development in the number of houses it allows to be built. Just over a third of Japanese citizens rent the homes they live in, protected by a 1991 law called the Act on Land and Building Leases, which makes it difficult for landlords to end leases or prevent a tenant from extending their rental contract…

So where else should we be looking, if not to Japan, for the model to fix the broken housing market in large parts of the west? One option is Singapore, where public housing is built in specially designed communities and sold to individuals with a 99-year lease below market value. Selling on that property is highly restricted to reduce profiteering, but it can happen after five years of ownership. Nearly four in five Singaporeans live in public-sector housing, according to official statistics. “Prices can never get beyond regular working families,” says Ronald. “They have this virtuous circle, and it makes it interesting to think about the role of regulating housing.”…

Until late January 2022, housing developments in Germany were subsidized by the government below market rates for the first five years after being built. “It means tens of thousands of units every year come onto the market, keeping rental prices lower and preventing scrambles to buy a property,” he says.

A similar model exists in Austria and Switzerland, where the split is roughly 55 to 45 percent (in favor of renting in Switzerland, and owning in Austria), compared to an average European home ownership rate of 70 percent. When you get to the Austrian capital, Vienna, the home ownership rate is just 7 percent.

All of these sound like they would require some fundamental changes to housing policy in the United States. This might include:

  1. A stronger national policy. This could be through programs available everywhere or guidelines that all states and municipalities have to follow.
  2. A stronger emphasis on renting.
  3. More government involvement in the construction of housing and/or longer-term government oversight of housing units.

None of these options would be particularly popular in the United States or easy to implement. Here are quick explanations why for each option above:

  1. A national policy would come at the expense of the power of more local governmental actors. With real estate being so much about location, could a national policy truly address all of the different situations? Americans expect to be able to control or at least provide input into the use of land around them.
  2. Homeownership is ingrained in American life as part of the attainment of the American Dream. This is ensconsed in zoning policy, supported by politicians and policies for decades, and Americans can be suspicious of renters compared to homeowners. Renting is more common in some areas compared to others but it is not seen as the ideal among Americans.
  3. Public housing has never been fully supported in the United States. The government’s active role in housing is often viewed as negative unless it is supporting homeownership.

This does not mean that the housing landscape in the United States cannot change. The need for more housing and more affordable housing is acute. But, changes will likely take decades and sustained efforts.

Still a limited tiny house movement

What happened to tiny houses in recent years? Here is some discussion of the issues tiny houses face:

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“We’re still here,” says Kent Griswold, 63, who lives in Bend, Ore., and is the founder of the Tiny House Blog, which is believed to be one of the first blogs about tiny houses. “The movement hasn’t stopped growing, it’s just not in the public eye as much anymore.”…

Laubach says due to the pandemic, which has made people re-evaluate what is important, retirees, mature widows and single women are driving much of the demand today…

Griswold agrees, but says instead of just the novelty of people looking for tiny homes on wheels, which really drove the movement during the 2007-09 recession, people are looking at other ways to live small…

“Tiny homes on wheels or park models are thought of as RVs, but many jurisdictions are starting to think of them as Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs). Still, the code problems can get frustrating for people,” says Laubach.

Arguably, the tiny house movement was not big to start with and the homes often appealed to particular people with resources.

COVID-19 and the housing affordability issues in many metropolitan regions would seem to be the conditions under which tiny houses would thrive. People want to get away from typical locations and they need cheaper spaces.

At the same time, more uncertain economic conditions might mean that people are less likely than ever to be lenient about zoning and codes. This limits where tiny houses are possible. This is, of course, a much broader issue: many communities want to protect single-family homes at all costs.

Does this mean something has to give in the future? Can people have really high property values, complain about the lack of affordable housing or housing options, and continue to restrict other housing options like tiny houses?

The tiny house movement might be small and it might work steadily but its ongoing presence is at least a reminder that other housing options are possible.

Why people do not flock to the American cities that keep showing up in the most affordable places to live

I recently saw another list of the most and least affordable metropolitan areas in the United States with a key metric of how many families in the region could purchase a home at the median price. Here are the five most affordable places:

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Home prices and incomes vary widely, and there are oases of affordability, mainly in the Rust Belt and Midwest. The top five most affordable places among metro areas with population of 500,000 or more:

Lansing, Michigan: As a result of modest home prices, 90.6 percent of all new and existing homes sold in the fall months were affordable to families earning the area’s median income of $79,100. The median home price was $155,000 in the fourth quarter of 2021, the builders’ index says.

Scranton-Wilkes Barre-Hazleton, Pennsylvania: Wages here are below national levels, but so are home prices — the median sale price was $150,000 in the fourth quarter. As a result of rock-bottom prices, 88.5 percent of all new and existing homes sold in October, November and December of 2021 were affordable to families earning the area’s median income of $70,600.

Pittsburgh: This metro area has a median family income of $84,800 and a median home price of just $166,000. As a result, 88.4 percent of homes were affordable for typical earners.

Indianapolis. This metro area has a median family income of $81,600 and a median home price of $215,000. As a result, 87.6 percent of homes were affordable for typical earners.

Akron, Ohio: With a median family income of $83,300 and a median home price of $165,000, fully 86.5 percent of homes were in reach of median-income families in the state capital.

Two features quickly stand out: the homes in these regions really are cheap (particularly when compared to local earnings) and they are all in the Midwest/Rust Belt.

Still, I have seen some version of this list many times now and I am not sure what to make of them. Why aren’t people moving to these locations?

The most obvious answers to me: it is not necessarily easy to move and these cities are perceived to have a lack of opportunities (economic, cultural, housing, etc.). American geographic mobility as a whole is down but do people actually move just for cheaper housing? What this list does is highlights that median income families can access median level housing in these five places. Get a decent job and owning a house is possible.

There are other possible answers that get more complicated:

  1. People just do not think of the Midwest/Rust Belt when thinking of places to live. Lack of opportunities, the weather, the middle of the country, a Midwestern blah-ness, etc.
  2. It is not just about a lack of opportunity; these are places seen as on the decline. Even if they are cheaper, who wants to live in a place that has already seen its best days when “growth is good” is a key marker of communities?
  3. These communities are lacking incentive campaigns to try to attract new residents.
  4. These communities may not want too many people to move in because it could drive up prices and bring in outsiders. (Yet, growth is good and many declining communities would do a lot to become a destination again.)

In sum: some American metropolitan areas are much cheaper than others, they have common characteristics, and there are a number of compelling reasons why people do not move to the places with cheaper housing.

Hot rental market in Phoenix and supplying enough housing

In an article about a large and expanding encampment of the homeless in Phoenix, here are some details about how rental prices in the city have shot up:

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“People say, ‘Are you surprised?’ And I say, ‘No, not really, because all of the housing forces in Phoenix and Maricopa County have been working against us for years,’” said Human Services Campus Executive Director Amy Schwabenlender, who works in the area with the encampment, sometimes referred to as “the Zone.” “We’ve had ongoing population increases in Phoenix and Maricopa County. We haven’t had housing production at all income levels keep up and meet that increase in population.”

Real estate investors are pouring cash into Phoenix and driving up prices. Rents there have spiked 25.6% over the past year, compared to a 15.9% increase in the U.S. from January 2021 to January 2022, according to data analyzed by Zillow. (Other popular Sun Belt cities like Miami and Tampa have also seen dizzyingly fast increases in rent.) Vacancy rates in Phoenix, or the availability of places for people to rent, are also at their lowest in 50 years, according to the Arizona Republic

While much of the rest of the article focuses on addressing housing for the homeless, this sounds like a bigger issue. This is an area with a growing population: Phoenix is now the fifth-largest city in the US and had a little over 100,000 residents in 1950 before experiencing double-digit percentage population growth in all but one decade since. Housing opportunities, particularly in rentals, have not kept up. American sprawl often produces a lot of single-family homes but necessarily cheaper houses or multi-family units for those who cannot secure a sizable mortgage.

What can Phoenix and surrounding communities do? Addressing housing in the United States is a difficult task. It will take concerted effort across communities for years. It may not be popular. But, it is essential for ensuring housing for all who need it.

It would be great to have an example of a city and region in the Sun Belt – roughly Virginia to southern California – that has successfully addressed this even as they have experienced significant growth in recent decades. I do not know if there is a great example, outside of some places not becoming too popular such that it raises demand and housing prices.

Declaring a mountain lion sanctuary and other NIMBY efforts

Wealthier communities have a variety of means by which to oppose or block cheaper housing or affordable housing. This can include emphasizing conservation in a Silicon Valley community:

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“Woodside declared its entire suburban town a mountain lion sanctuary in a deliberate and transparent attempt to avoid complying with SB 9,” California Attorney General Rob Bonta wrote in a letter to notify the town that the move violates state law and must be amended.

After receiving a letter from the attorney general this weekend that threatened further legal action, the town ended its short jaunt into the world of conservation the next day. In a statement on Monday, the council said that the Department of Fish and Wildlife “had advised that the entire Town of Woodside cannot be considered habitat” and that “as such, the Town Council has instructed staff to immediately begin accepting SB 9 applications.”

Woodside is not alone in recent efforts:

Woodside is far from the only town that has attempted to come up with creative ways to block the statewide rezoning law. Since its introduction last year, local governments and homeowner groups have opposed the plan, claiming that it crushes single-family zoning.

There have been at least 40 cases in which towns attempted to block or limit SB 9 housing, according to affordable housing advocacy group Yes in My Back Yard Law.

I would not expect wealthier communities to just go along with new guidelines. The combination of local government authority over zoning plus wealth means that certain communities can delay and/or fight affordable housing or more housing. Or, state legislation or federal guidelines are written in such a way that communities escape scrutiny or any penalties (see the example of Illinois). Is the situation different now in California such that communities will not be able to delay any longer?

More broadly, how much do efforts to conserve open space in suburban areas really take place to protect wildlife and land versus limiting the amount of development? From my research in the Chicago suburbs, I recall numerous efforts to protect open land and expand Forest Preserves. These often occurred during mass suburbanization in the postwar area as open space quickly disappeared among new subdivisions and roads. Open space can help limit the number of nearby residences, reduce noise and traffic, and boost property values by limiting housing supply.

The presence of mobile homes in the Chicago area

Remembering a small mobile home community not too far from the suburban home in which I grew up, I was interested to see numbers on how many mobile homes are in the Chicago region and read about the experiences of people living in mobile homes:

Yes, we do! It turns out hundreds of families live in Chicago’s only trailer park, Harbor Point Estates, which is in the far southeast corner of the city. It sits along the shores of Wolf Lake in the Hegewisch neighborhood, just off 134th Street. The community is so close to Indiana you can fly a kite there, a property manager says.

And beyond the city’s borders, there’s another 18,000 mobile homes in the seven-county metro area, according to estimates by regional planners. Mobile home communities are squeezed between expressways and plopped down in exurban cornfields, from the North Shore to Peotone…

Curious City got a question about trailer parks from a listener interested in affordable homeownership. “What is life like in Chicagoland trailer parks?” the listener wanted to know.

So we visited manufactured housing communities in Chicago, Blue Island and Des Plaines to ask residents that question. And we met people with a whole range of experiences. We found some who had moved to the trailer park as a way to make ends meet. We found families looking for peace and safety and a quiet place to raise their kids. We found residents who liked the trailer park because they could live near extended family — adult siblings, cousins — and others who’d adopted neighbors as extended family. We found people living in their familiar mobile home deep into old age. We found folks looking for a foothold to the American Dream.

Many suburban communities and urban neighborhoods would not want or approve mobile homes. As communities tend to prefer development (if they prefer any new development) that matches or exceeds the prices and styles of existing residences, mobile homes can be hard to find in metropolitan regions.

This also reminds me of sociologist Matthew Desmond’s findings about urban mobile home communities in Evicted. Such communities do exist, their landlords can and do make money, and residents in mobile home communities can face a number of issues.

Yet, because of their cost, they can be a housing option for many. Looking to address affordable housing in the Chicago region? Mobile homes could be part of a comprehensive answer.

(Bonus: the title of my published study on religious zoning in Chicago suburban contexts refers to someone saying that would prefer mobile homes nearby rather than a possible Islamic Center.)

Perhaps celebrity-led affordable housing is not the answer

Actor Brad Pitt created a foundation that built 109 affordable housing units in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. According to one observer, the project has not gone well:

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Brad Pitt’s Make It Right Foundation built 109 eye-catching and affordable homes in New Orleans for a community where many people were displaced by damage wrought by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Now this housing development is in disarray. The vast majority of the recently constructed homes are riddled with construction-related problems that have led to mold, termites, rotting wood, flooding and other woes.

At least six are boarded up and abandoned. Many residents have filed lawsuits that are still pending. That is, a nonprofit that built houses with input from Frank Gehry and other prominent architects amid much fanfare for survivors of one disaster then ushered in another disaster…

Brad Pitt, who took credit for launching this organization in 2007 and often served as its public face in subsequent years, was still listed as a board member as of 2018.

Pitt’s lawyers argued that he could not be sued over the housing development’s failings, but a judge ruled in 2019 that the movie star would remain a defendant because of his role as Make It Right’s founder and chief fundraiser.

Housing, plus the decades of policies and history undergirding it in particular locations and in the broader sense, is difficult to address.

This proposed solution is one employed in many American sectors. A celebrity comes in and lends their name and resources to a project. I think I showed a class a documentary Pitt narrated about efforts to rebuild in the Lower Ninth Ward.

What happens in the end because of the efforts of the celebrity? Here, the outcome does not sound good: the homes are in disrepair and court cases are pending. The homes that were intended to help are their own problem.

To repeat, tackling affordable housing, even with the help of a megastar, is no easy task.

The arguments for and against banning zoning for only single-family homes

The single-family home is very important in the United States and this is enshrined in land use policy and zoning. Because of this, there is a move in multiple communities to ban single-family home zoning and this has prompted debate over the change:

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Originally introduced in Berkeley, Calif., in 1916 as a means of preventing a black-owned dance hall from opening, single-family zoning became increasingly popular — though divorced from its explicitly racist origins — as more Amercans moved to sprawling suburban cities across the country. Today, many of the country’s major urban areas reserve 75 percent or more of their residential land exclusively for stand-alone, one-family homes.

Recently, lawmakers in blue states and cities have moved to roll back zoning rules in hopes of spurring more development. Minneapolis became the first major city to ban single-family zoning in 2019. That same year, Oregon passed a similar law statewide. Perhaps the most significant change came in California where the median home price is estimated to exceed $800,000. A new law that eliminates single-family zoning across the entire state went into effect on Jan. 1. None of these reforms make it illegal or even more difficult to build a stand-alone house, they simply remove barriers that prevent any other type of dwelling from being built.

Advocates for eliminating single-family zoning say it’s the most important step toward addressing the housing shortage, since any other programs to spur more development would be moot if there’s no land to legally build on. Supporters say eliminating what they often refer to exclusionary zoning would have wide-ranging benefits beyond just creating more housing stock, including reducing racial segregation and closing the racial wealth gap, boosting job opportunities in urban areas and reducing climate impacts created by suburban sprawl.

Many conservative opponents of these reforms, including former President Donald Trump, have portrayed them as a “war on the suburbs” that would bring big-city problems to quiet communities while doing little to address the underlying causes of the housing shortage. Some argue that financial incentives, not coercive new laws, are the best way to spur development.

A lot of pro-housing advocates also have doubts about how much of an impact zoning reforms on their own will make. They argue that most of the new laws are riddled with exceptions that limit their scope and few also address the long list of other ways that local governments can prevent dense housing from being built — like minimum lot sizes and parking requirements. Some on the left make the case that the only way to increase housing supply at the pace that’s necessary is through strict mandates that require cities to build a certain number of housing units and impose heavy financial penalties on those that don’t.

This would be a hard change to make and capitalize on in many communities. Housing policy in the United States is difficult to change and is rooted in a long history, cultural narratives about success, exclusionary practices, and local governments and other government actors. Yet, even discussion of such a change at least highlights the need in many places to think more about housing and how it could be more accessible to many.

As about any policy possibilities in the United States, I now wonder if what would work best in this situation is for several different kinds of communities across the country to ban single-family zoning and see what happens. What changes in the community? How do residents and newcomers experience it? How does it affect housing values? Does it significantly alter the character of the community? And if there are success stories – which could range from limited noticeable change (that it does not lead to negative outcomes or the end of the suburbs might be good enough) to positive outcomes – then other communities could observe and consider the option.

The importance and consequences of separating single-family homes from other land uses in the United States

A foundational idea in American life is that single-family homes should be located near other single-family homes and away from other land uses, including denser residential units. While this might sometimes be sidelined to the more areas of planning and zoning, I would argue this is much bigger than just allocating physical space: it interacts with significant social, political, and cultural forces and has sizable effects on daily life. I will first describe how we got here before highlighting two examples I saw this week and then noting several important outcomes.

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From at least the mid-1800s, Americans developed ideas about having separate single-family homes among nature. Scholar John Archer examines the idea of “the cottage in the woods” from its roots in English villa houses and into a rapidly urbanizing American landscape. As cities and then suburbs developed, the single-family home became a hallmark of suburban communities where residents had escaped hectic and dangerous urban life. As zoning developed in the early 1900s, it evolved to protect single-family homes from other nearby land uses that might threaten it. Many American leaders and organizations promoted homeownership. Suburban communities and residential neighborhoods became refuges for whiter and wealthier residents who then worked to keep others out. This all helped contribute to residential pockets separate from other land uses and protected by local zoning and land use policies.

This historical legacy and ongoing reality plays out consistently in certain areas. Two examples I ran across in just the last few days:

  1. Affordable housing in the suburbs. Can denser housing that is cheaper be anywhere near single-family homes? This particular project in the Chicago suburbs drew typical complains from nearby homeowners; noise, traffic, change in character for the neighborhood. The developer came back with changes to try to fit in better with the nearby homes but there are still concerns. This makes sense given the American logic of homes and space but this logic is not organic or inherent to the housing itself; it is created.
  2. Why do apartments have to be located on busier streets in American communities? This may have negative effects on the apartment residents and serves to maintain the distance between denser housing and single-family homes. Again, this makes sense given the established American logic but it is possible – and indeed done elsewhere – that you can have quieter residential streets lined with apartments.

Why does this all matter? This separation of housing serves to continue race/ethnicity and class divides, contributing to residential segregation. This changes social patterns as people in different neighborhoods may be less likely to interact, utilize the same civic (such as schools) and private services, and engage politically. Ultimately, it can both shape and be shaped cleavages in society. Location helps determine life chances and Americans start with the premise that homes should be separate.