One way suburbs fight affordable housing: concerns about density

This example of how the conversation about a proposed affordable housing project with 58 units in the Chicago suburbs is illustrative:

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The developers propose to build a three-story building on approximately 2.5 acres at 874-920 N. Quentin Road, on the southwest corner with Poplar Street. All of the apartments — one-, two- and three-bedrooms — would be set aside for tenants whose income is between 30% and 80% of the area’s median income.

Village staff members recommended denying the plan, and the plan commission did the same after a public hearing Tuesday night. The village council will have final say and is expected to discuss the matter Aug. 9.

Plan commissioners praised the developer’s successful record of affordable housing developments, but they didn’t like the plan for the Palatine site, saying it’s too dense. The area consists of single-family homes and townhouses, with an apartment complex further north…

Several residents spoke Tuesday against the plan, saying they are worried about traffic, noise and light pollution, and changing the character of the neighborhood.

The final word will come in a few weeks. In the meantime, this set of arguments is a common one when suburbs consider apartments or even townhomes and condos. A key issue is the density of the project. What this often means is the community prefers to have single-family homes. Denser housing is often thought of as smaller housing or cheaper housing. Here, that is clear in that it is affordable housing where, through a sizable tax credit ($15 million) from an Illinois agency, residents will not need to pay full market rate.

Additionally, people often have concerns about the aesthetics and daily experiences around apartments. Apartment buildings are taller and are bulkier compared to homes on grassy lots. Because of more residents on less land, there will be more traffic on local roads. This particular proposal is close to a busier intersection but it also would be adjacent to single-family homes. It just looks different than single-family homes. If there are too many denser developments, the impression may be that single-family homes are not valued.

In sum, this density and kind of housing is perceived as a threat to the character of single-family home communities. Municipalities will sometimes respond to such proposals by asking the developer to reduce the number of units. Or, they might reject it all together by saying that it is not a good fit. And the search for land for affordable housing continues.

Taking Los Angeles from 10 million planned residents down to nearly 4 million

Today, Los Angeles has almost 4 million residents. At one point, planners thought it could have 10 million residents. What happened in local government in the 1970s helped lead to this change:

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Come 1970, there was broad support for a portentous shift: Los Angeles would abandon the top-down planning that prevailed during a quarter century of postwar growth in favor of an ostensibly democratized approach. The city was divided into 35 community areas, each represented by a citizen advisory committee that would draw up a plan to guide its future. In theory, this would empower Angelenos from Brentwood to Boyle Heights to Watts.

In practice, it enabled what the Los Angeles land-use expert Greg Morrow calls “the homeowner revolution.” In his doctoral dissertation, he argued that a faction of wealthy, mostly white homeowners seized control of citizen advisory committees, especially on the Westside, to dominate land-use policy across the city. These homeowners contorted zoning rules in their neighborhoods to favor single-family houses, even though hardly more than a third of households in Los Angeles are owner-occupied, while nearly two-thirds are rented. By forming or joining nongovernmental homeowners’ associations that counted land-use rules as their biggest priority, these homeowners managed to wield disproportionate influence. Groups that favored more construction and lower rents, including Republicans in the L.A. Area Chamber of Commerce and Democrats in the Urban League, failed to grasp the stakes.

The Federation of Hillside and Canyon Associations, a coalition of about 50 homeowners’ groups, was one of the most powerful anti-growth forces in California, Morrow’s research showed. It began innocently in the 1950s, when residents living below newly developed hillsides sought stricter rules to prevent landslides. Morrow found little explicit evidence that these groups were motivated by racism, but even if all the members of this coalition had been willing to welcome neighbors of color in ensuing decades, their vehement opposition to the construction of denser housing and apartments served to keep their neighborhoods largely segregated. Many in the coalition had an earnestly held, quasi-romantic belief that a low-density city of single-family homes was the most wholesome, elevating environment and agreed that their preferred way of life was under threat. Conservatives worried that the government would destroy their neighborhoods with public-housing projects. Anti-capitalists railed against profit-driven developers. Environmentalists warned that only zero population growth would stave off mass starvation.

Much like the Reaganites who believed that “starving the beast” with tax cuts would shrink government, the anti-growth coalition embraced the theory that preventing the construction of housing would induce locals to have fewer kids and keep others from moving in. The initial wave of community plans, around 1970, “dramatically rolled back density,” Morrow wrote, “from a planned population of 10 million people down to roughly 4.1 million.” Overnight, the city of Los Angeles planned for a future with 6 million fewer residents. When Angelenos kept having children and outsiders kept moving into the city anyway, the housing deficit exploded and rents began their stratospheric rise.

Americans tend to like local government. And this is one reason why: local citizens get involved and they are able to advocate for what they want.

Whether these local decisions are good for the broader community, city, or region is less clear. On one hand, these homeowners groups wanted their neighborhoods to be a particular way. They purchased a home in a certain setting for a reason. They tried to protect this way of life. (Even a freezing a neighborhood or community in time is difficult.) On the other hand, this had consequences for many others. These are neighborhoods within a larger city. Housing decisions contribute to residential segregation. Decisions about density reduce housing options.

The residents of these specific neighborhoods might have won but at what cost?

A growing shortage of starter homes

Those looking for smaller homes to purchase are facing a limited supply:

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The first rung on the homeownership ladder has long been an affordable “starter home.” These houses, with their smaller footprints and selling prices, allowed young homeowners to build wealth and upsize as they started their families…

Supply of “entry-level housing”—which Freddie Mac defines as homes under 1,400 square feet—is at a five-decade low.

Surging prices and stiff competition mean there aren’t enough smaller, more affordable starter homes to go around in many regions. The pandemic and subsequent recession, along with the student debt crisis and delayed family formation, contributed to frustration and despair among younger house hunters…

Lately, data from the National Association of Home Builders shows new construction is again giving priority to higher square footage for single-family homes, a trend likely spurred by the widespread shift to working from home and house hunters’ need for more space.

This has been building for years now with the factors cited above (and more – and it may not be the fault of millennials). Builders prioritized larger homes as they can profit more from each units and buyers wanted more features and/or larger homes.

I wonder about the role of local governments. How many urban neighborhoods and suburban communities allow for or encourage the construction of smaller homes. It might take some extra work for a community to work with a developer who is willing to construct smaller and cheaper homes. At the same time, some of the existing members of the community might not be happy about the change as smaller homes are often interpreted as dragging down values and the character of the community. At the least, wealthier communities are unlikely to encourage such homes unless they are at a higher price point – and then it is no longer a starter home.

The article also mentions the financial ramifications of not getting into a house earlier: on average, this lowers the amount of house wealth generated decades later. Might then then shift the emphasis of recent decades away from seeing homeownership as a financial nest egg or requiring a necessary return on investment?

Increasing residential segregation in the Bay Area

A new report shows an increase in residential segregation in the Bay Area over recent decades:

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The Bay Area has become more racially segregated since 1990, mirroring a long-running national trend of cities and neighborhoods dividing more starkly along ethnic lines, according to a new study by UC Berkeley researchers.

Oakland, Fremont, San Francisco and San Jose are all among cities ranked as “highly segregated” by the university’s Othering & Belonging Institute…

Menendian said land use policies, including restrictions on denser housing and apartments, have driven segregation, particularly in the Bay Area. “It’s crystal clear that excessive restrictive zoning plays a significant role.”…

The impact of segregation, Berkeley researchers say, is clear: residents in communities of color have lower future economic gains, educational achievement and poorer health.

The full report includes a number of interesting sections.

In some ways, the Bay Area is seen as a success story. Exciting cities and and cultural opportunities. Proximity to Silicon Valley and the tech industry. Diversity. A striking setting. But, this report hints at a darker side of this success: an ongoing process of homogenization. Divisions by location based on race and class. Zoning that keeps uses and people separate.

Do the two trends – success and division – necessarily go together? One does not have to lead to the other or vice versa. The same project found high levels of residential segregation in cities in the Midwest and Northeast, places without the same level of success as the Bay Area in recent years.

One way to think about this is to look at how the region as a whole could address this. Individual municipalities could address particular topics – like affordable housing or zoning issues – but might only help so many people and push the problem into other communities. A region-wide approach would help think about how gains can be shared and how concerns can be addressed by all. Even the biggest cities cannot go it alone when they rely on nearby places for workers and amenities.

Another matter to think about as addressed in the final paragraph above: residential segregation has cascading effects that can last for a long time. Where people live affects many aspects of life, ranging from what jobs can be accessed, the quality of housing, what is available through local schools and other institutions, and more. This is not an issue of people choosing to live some places rather than others; residential segregation speaks to patterns that can become reified and can physically establish different social worlds.

Finally, I am reminded of the Emerson and Smiley book Market Cities, People Cities. Is the long-term goal of the region to put the economy first? Or, is there enough interest in promoting more people friendly policies? The reputation and history of the area suggests there are resources and collectives to move toward more people oriented policies. However, this is a difficult move for any American city as social, political, and economic forces push toward placing the economy first.

Large actors in the US housing market and building more homes

Derek Thompson argues those interested in more housing in the United States should be more concerned with local NIMBY activity than private investment firms buying up homes to rent:

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Far worse than corporations taking a few thousand units off the market for owners are the governments and noisy NIMBYish residents taking millions of units off the market for owners and renters alike—by blocking construction projects in the past few decades. (California alone has an estimated shortage of 3 million housing units.) From New York to California, deep-blue cities and states have amassed a pitiful record of blocking housing construction and failing to meet rising demand with adequate supply. Many of the people tweeting about BlackRock are represented by city councils and state governments, or are surrounded by zoning laws and local ordinances that make home construction something between onerous and impossible.

One of the issues at play here is a numbers one: who exactly is acting within the US housing market and how much sway do they have. Concerns about corporations and housing can be placed in the larger context of how many housing units there are and how many are being built. Here are the numbers Thompson provides:

The U.S. has roughly 140 million housing units, a broad category that includes mansions, tiny townhouses, and apartments of all sizes. Of those 140 million units, about 80 million are stand-alone single-family homes. Of those 80 million, about 15 million are rental properties. Of those 15 million single-family rentals, institutional investors own about 300,000; most of the rest are owned by individual landlords. Of that 300,000, BlackRock—largely through its investment in the real-estate rental company Invitation Homes—owns about 80,000. (To clear up a common confusion: The investment firm Blackstone established Invitation Homes, in which BlackRock, a separate investment firm, is now an investor. Don’t yell at me; I didn’t name them.)

If I am calculating correctly, institutional investors currently own 2% of the single-family rentals. Of course, this number could grow if these firms find this to be a good investment.

Also of interest is the number of new homes being constructed. Thompson links to figures from the National Association of Home Builders that shows 6.8 million new single-family units were created in the 2010s. So, concerns about big investors buying homes could be considered alongside housing construction: if the investors are buying more quickly than new homes are being built, this could be an issue.

Thompson settles on local actors – governments and residents – as holding back housing construction. In this numbers game, restrictions on a local level collectively are holding back the construction of single-family housing. If these restrictions were lifted or lessened, concerns about institutional investors would presumably diminish because there is a larger supply of houses to choose from.

One problem I see with this among the larger numbers: while local actors might in the aggregate have oversight over millions of units, they individually have control over relatively few units. Let’s say a particular suburb in the Bay Area (and this NIMBY argument often comes back to California) is against building new single-family homes. Depending on the size of the community and the availability of land, this might affect just a few homes to several thousand. This is not many. Zoom out to the whole region and many suburbs doing this adds up to tens of thousands of potential homes. Do this across all of California’s metro areas and the numbers add up. Similarly, you could do this across all the metro areas in the United States.

However, convincing all these municipalities to act in the interests of the region, state, or country as a whole regarding housing is a difficult task. Housing is local and this makes legislation at the state or federal level very difficult. California’s recent efforts with SB 50 did not go through. Illinois just recently gave some teeth – but not all the teeth – to affordable housing guidelines for communities set almost two decades ago. Federal guidelines are met with the suggestions that the suburbs are going to be abolished. One reason Americans like suburbs in the first place is that local government, presumably more responsive to the needs of residents, has the power to exclude (particularly on race and social class) and protect the existing single-family homes.

All of this does not necessarily mean Thompson is wrong. Yet, to get to the numbers of new homes constructed that would make a significant difference – whether in reducing the need many metro areas have for more affordable housing or outweighing the actions of investment firms – would require a lot of change across many communities. State or federal legislation may or may not be successful and would be unpopular in many places without a significant public groundswell of support that this is an issue that all or even most communities need to address.

Together, municipal changes regarding zoning and NIMBY could add up. But, changes would need to come across communities to make a big difference.

Chicago to test ADUs: coach houses, attic and basement apartments

With housing issues in the city and region, Chicago is testing out several ways property owners can convert parts of their property into residences:

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Coach houses – stand-alone housing structures sometimes built above garages and sometimes referred to as “granny flats” – were once prevalent in Chicago, but changes in zoning and parking requirements caused their construction to be banned in 1957. In December, the Chicago City Council re-legalized coach houses and apartment units in basements and attics, passing the Affordable Dwelling Units Ordinance. The ordinance took effect May 1, and the city is now accepting applications.

The five pilot areas cover much of the city, with zones in the north, northwest, west, south, and southeast areas of Chicago. After a three-year evaluation period in these pilot zones, the city will decide whether to make the ordinance citywide policy…

For properties planning to construct two or more additional dwelling units, every other unit must be affordable housing.

This opens up new opportunities both for property owners and those searching for housing. For landlords, they can gain more income, house family members, or create new space on their property that people could live in later. For those needing housing, these are likely smaller spaces that could provide dwellings in residential neighborhoods and possibly help keep such housing more affordable with more units available.

But, how many of these units will be created? Property owners might not like the idea of someone living so close to them. It takes money to create these units. The density of residential neighborhoods is important to many single-family home owners; they often want more space. Does this create more demand for parking and vehicles? Could this lead to tension on a block if some want to add units and neighbors are not as bullish on the prospects?

Furthermore, do these efforts continue to concentrate wealth and opportunities in the hands of particular land owners who can afford to create and rent units? Will this truly lead to more cheap housing or will certain neighborhoods have more of these units at higher prices?

Considering whether a $300,000 home is affordable or attainable, Naperville edition

The approval of a new development in Naperville touches on a broader topic in the suburb in recent months: affordable housing. Who would be able to purchase a residence in the 200+ units?

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Councilman Patrick Kelly, the lone dissenting vote, objected to the lack of affordable housing in the 227-unit development, a “missed opportunity” that could have helped efforts to diversify the city’s housing stock.

State law requires 10% of a town’s housing supply to qualify as affordable. Naperville falls shorts at an estimated 7.5%…

The townhouses will be priced from the $300,000s. While the project doesn’t provide, by definition, affordable housing, Councilwoman Judith Brodhead said it “does fit the category of attainable housing.”

“Certainly, there’s not new construction, anything that you can find in north Naperville, in that kind of price range,” Whitaker said.

Much of the opposition to the proposal for an empty piece of land has centered on the possible environmental impacts. The property in question backs up to a Forest Preserve and there are bird and animal habitats nearby.

But, the affordable housing question is an interesting one. In wealthier suburbs, affordable housing does not necessarily mean housing for poorer residents. Such communities could not like affordable reasons for a number of reasons including who might live there and how smaller and/or cheaper homes might affect other homes in the community.

And there are ways to push off affordable housing. For example, zoning in particular ways can limit the number of residences that are cheaper. Another way is to recast what affordable housing is. Remarks, like the one above in the quoted section, are not unknown in Naperville. See this example from last July. Naperville is a desirable community: it is wealthy, has good schools, has an exciting suburban downtown, has lots of parks. Even as a large suburb, it has a lofty status. According to 2019 Census estimates, the median home value is over $416,000.

With all of this, a townhouse at $300,000 is a lower price. Units on this kind of land in a community like Naperville could go for a lot more. Yet, is $300,000 attainable for all the people who want to live in Naperville? Or, the people who work in Naperville? It is cheaper – but is it affordable?

There are limited ways to force suburbs like Naperville to construct housing that is affordable. President Biden wants to offer more carrots in this area. Public pressure from residents and organizations could push Naperville leaders to address this more fully. Naperville has served as a center of suburban protests before. But, there will always be questions of how such units would fit with the character of the existing community, what it means for existing units and residents, and who might live in such housing.

Fighting zoning restrictions with “carrot, no stick” approach

The Biden administration has plans to encourage more housing by offering infrastructure money for loosening zoning regulations:

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The Biden proposal would set up a $5 billion fund for local governments to compete for grants to pay for new schools, roads or bridges if they agreed to loosen zoning rules.

“This is a new approach that is purely carrot, no stick,” said a White House official on condition of anonymity…

Trump himself explicitly campaigned against the idea last year, warning “suburban housewives” that crime would spike and home values drop if zoning rules were relaxed.

Housing experts praised Biden’s proposal, but said it may do little to influence affluent communities that have the tightest zoning laws, which have little need for federal assistance.

It will be interesting to see which communities would accept the carrot and loosen zoning. My guess: suburban communities that are already in the midst of demographic and community change and looking for funds that could help point the community in a particular direction.

To get richer, get the right job and then “buy a home in a neighborhood with a lot of zoning restrictions”

David Brooks looks at which professions provide a higher likelihood of getting into the 1% and then how to get even richer once you are there:

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Once you’ve made some money, there’s one more way to get richer. Buy a home in a neighborhood with a lot of zoning restrictions. For example, 84 percent of the land in Charlotte, N.C., and 94 percent of the land in San Jose, Calif., is zoned for detached single- family homes. These restrictions keep the supply of housing low and jack up the value of homes for people wealthy enough to already own one.

My main message is that if you want to get rich, don’t invent a new and useful product, start a company and try to sell it. That seems risky. Put the effort into entering a clubby line of work in which legislators and professional associations are working to make you rich. It’s easier!

While the majority of the argument is about particular professions, I think the connection between jobs and exclusive homes is this: in both cases, the structures are set up to enrich those that can participate. Just as regulations and structures may privilege particular careers, zoning in the United States is often meant to protect single-family homes. If a homeowner can purchase a residence with particular features and in a specific setting, the zoning helps ensure that the property will be worth more in the future. The homeowner is responsible for some upkeep and updating – and may even go so far as to pursue a teardown – but the protections for the property are almost enough in themselves to let the investment grow in worth just be sitting there.

Connected to this, the zoning for single-family homes restricts the number of residences in that immediate area. More density does not necessarily mean lower property values; numerous urban centers – such as Chicago and New York – are home to new tall buildings whose units are only available to the super-wealthy. At the same time, proximity to amenities and particular neighborhoods are desirable and fewer residences there can help drive up the value of existing properties.

To some degree, many Americans are hoping for this to work for them. Go to college and get a good degree from a good school to gain the right skills, qualifications, and access to social networks. This leads to a better job with higher pay. Then, purchase a home in a reputable community where prices will continue to rise. Wait a few decades and let the pay, home investment, and other benefits accrue. This may not lead to being rich but it reduces anxiety about later decades in life.

Of course, the system could be set up in other ways. Do Americans want homes to be investment vehicles? Should there be such differences in pay and compensation across fields or job positions? Is zoning about the good of the community as a whole or about particular land owners? Combating existing patterns is no easy task, particularly in times when any discussion of inequality can quickly get heated.

Homes as investments in continually increasing national median home values

The national median house value kept going up through November 2020:

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Despite a global pandemic and an economic downturn, U.S. home prices pushed new boundaries last year: The national median sale price for existing homes hit $310,800 in November, marking 105 straight months of year-over-year gains, according to data from the National Association of Realtors.

This could reinforce the now common viewpoint that homes are investments. Increasing median values for over eight suggests reinforces the idea that homes generally go up in value. Except for big economic crises – think the burst housing bubble of the late 2000s – houses accrue value over time. Even COVID-19 could not derail this.

This is often viewed as a good thing. Homeowners like that their homes are increasing in value because they can make more money when they sell. Communities take this as a marker of status. Realtors and others in the housing industry benefit. No one wants a drop in housing values across the board. (Of course, this is the median so the values can differ a lot by location.)

The commodification changes how owners, developers, and communities think about houses. They are not just the private spaces to escape the outside world – an established idea in the American Dream – but goods to profit from. An increasing value must be good and steps in other areas should be taken to protect home values.

This has numerous effects. It encourages Americans to invest resources in buying housing when that money could be put to use elsewhere. It contributes to single-use zoning where homes are protected from any other possible uses. It can exacerbate the inequality gap between those who can buy homes and those who cannot or between those with homes in places where the values keep going up versus those with homes in places with stagnant values.