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  • So I spend a lot of time looking at houses on Zillow.

  • And lately, I noticed that, even in places where houses are usually expensive...

  • they seem even more expensive.

  • Like here, in the San Francisco Bay Area

  • What has the last year been like?

  • For years, the Bay Area has been an extreme example

  • of how difficult it is to find affordable housing in the US.

  • It's where Silicon Valley bus drivers sleep in their cars at night,

  • because they can't afford housing near work.

  • And where school teachers can't afford to live in the counties they teach

  • But it's not just the Bay Area.

  • The lack of affordable housing is a national problem.

  • And right now, it's worse than ever.

  • We've seen, over the last year,

  • housing prices reach a level they've never reached before in American history

  • They kind of just look like a rocket ship going to the moon:

  • housing prices reaching a median of $350,000 for the median American home.

  • Those prices have made rents more expensive,

  • and have made homeownership less attainable for millions of Americans.

  • So why is this happening?

  • And how do we bring that rocket ship closer to Earth

  • We can think of today's housing prices in terms of a supply-and-demand problem

  • On the demand side, there are a few things happening.

  • The first is a generational shift in who's buying homes

  • Millennials are the biggest generation in American history,

  • and they're aging into their prime home-buying years.

  • On top of that, mortgage rates are at an all-time low,

  • which means it's very cheap to borrow the money needed to buy a house.

  • That's enticed more people to buy if they can, making demand for houses even higher.

  • The problem is that supply isn't matching that demand.

  • From 2010 to 2019, there were fewer homes built in the US than in any decade since the 1960s.

  • In particular, the construction of smaller, entry-level housing,

  • the kind made for first-time home buyers, has dropped dramatically.

  • In the 1980s, those "starter" homes made up around 40% of all homes built.

  • Today, it's closer to 7%.  

  • In 2018, one estimate said the US housing market was 2.5 million homes short of meeting demand.

  • By the end of 2020, it was 3.8 million.

  • And that's driving a big part of the problem, both for renters

  • and for people who want to be homeowners.

  • The shortage is worst in the places where demand is highest,

  • near good jobs, transit, and schools

  • And one pretty straightforward solution to that

  • is to just build more homes in those places.

  • But for years, there's been one big obstacle to that:

  • we aren't allowed to.

  • Take a look at this map of the Bay Area.

  • It's showing something called zoning,

  • or local regulations that decide what can be built where

  • This much of the region is zoned for residential housing

  • In blue are areas zoned to allow multi-family housing,

  • while the areas shaded in pink are zoned for single-family housing only

  • That's 82 percent of all residential land in the Bay Area.

  • What it means is that you've banned the ability for anyone to build anything

  • other than a single unit of housing on that lot of land.

  • And in many towns, like Atherton,

  • they've excluded all multi-family housing from their neighborhoods.

  • And that doesn't just mean a giant apartment building.

  • It means things like duplexes, things like fourplexes...

  • Things like that are illegal in the majority of the country.

  •  This is an example of something called "exclusionary zoning."

  • It's a big part of the reason for the housing supply shortage in the US.

  • And single-family-only zoning is just one way local laws limit how much housing we can build

  • Many places also employ height restrictions.

  • In Cupertino, California, some areas are zoned for multi-family buildings,

  • but they don't allow any buildings over two stories.

  • Parking requirements are often written into zoning laws, too.

  • Cupertino requires developers to set aside space for two parking spaces

  • for each unit of multi-family housing.

  • That means, if you were building an apartment complex that had 100 units,

  • you'd need to find space for 200 parking spots.

  • Which usually means buildings that size don't get built at all

  • They lower the number of units they're actually building

  • so they can save space for those parking spaces.

  • And then, those units become more expensive

  • because the land still stays the same cost to the developer.

  • And you then get a situation where potentially more affordable units

  • turn into higher-income-servicing units.

  • Another feature of many zoning laws is minimum lot sizes.

  • It means builders are legally required to allot a minimum amount of land for each home.

  • Often a large amount of land

  • In Cupertino, most single-family lots must be at least 5,000 square feet each

  • Starter homes are usually around 1,400 to 1,500 square feet.

  • And so you've basically banned all that type of housing.

  • In Atherton, the minimum lot size for homes is one acre: more than 43,000 square feet.

  • Which makes it virtually impossible to build any kind of affordable home there.

  • Together, exclusionary zoning laws like this push builders across the country

  • to focus on bigger, luxury homes,

  • instead of smaller starter homes, or multi-family housing

  • Essentially creating gated communities in public spaces

  • What you are saying is that you are only allowing people

  • who have already been able to partake in the wealth of this country,

  • and to grow their income,

  • and have access to high opportunity jobs and education,

  • to live in our neighborhoods.

  • Historically, some of the first zoning laws in the US were engineered for that exactly:

  • to block people of color, and in particular Black Americans,

  • from living in predominantly white neighborhoods

  • Today, the laws don't explicitly mention race, but they continue to worsen segregation

  • In the Bay Area, the more single-family zoning in a neighborhood, the whiter it is

  • But all this has another effect as well:

  • By shrinking the pot of new housing getting built, while demand keeps rising,

  • it drives up the cost of housing for everyone.

  • Changing zoning laws can be difficult.

  • And often, the biggest obstacles are the wealthiest residents.

  • The process is usually defined by who shows up to these public meetings.

  • And what you have is often a much whiter, wealthier crowd,

  • the ones who come and say, "I don't want this in my community,"

  • "I'm concerned about what will happen to my property values."

  • And then there's this kind of code word, “neighborhood character.” 

  • Remember those teachers I mentioned,

  • who can't afford to live in the counties where they teach?

  • Well in 2018, one local school district proposed a solution:

  • building affordable housing units for teachers in San Jose.

  • It caused an uproar among San Jose parents,

  • who petitioned against "changing the neighborhood."

  • It may not seem like a big deal when one wealthy neighborhood

  • blocks one multi-family development.

  • The problem is that it happens all the time:

  • Communities block new housing everywhere

  • People are, when they hear this kind of rhetoric, very confused.

  • Because they're like, "I don't want to live in a place with ten thousand apartment buildings.

  • It doesn't make sense to do that."

  • And they're right. No one is saying that every neighborhood in every city

  • should be ten thousand-foot apartment buildings or anything like that.

  • But even small, gradual changes to zoning laws can have an impact.

  • For example, allowing smaller homes on smaller lots, or simply allowing duplexes,

  • would double capacity for housing in some areas

  • In recent years, some cities like Berkeley, Minneapolis, and Portland

  • have taken the huge step of ending single-family zoning.

  • But the problem is nationwide.

  • The real fix is going to happen when these decisions start being made, and start being regulated,

  • at the statewide level or at the federal level in some capacity

  • Today, the Biden administration is attempting to tackle exclusionary zoning

  • through a five billion-dollar program,

  • that would give money to localities that remove exclusionary zoning policies.

  • But even that may not be enough.

  • This is more than any presidential administration has done on this topic,

  • either Democrat or Republican.

  • It is also very small in the face of this problem.

  • They want to take action, they recognize how big of a deal it is,

  • but they are not actually willing to create the kind of political blowback

  • from often very high-value voters living in suburban environments.

  • Ending America's housing shortage will require real political willpower.  

  • And it'll require people across the country to take a look at their own neighborhoods:

  • what gets built, who gets excluded,

  • and how to make homeownership achievable for the millions who are shut out.

So I spend a lot of time looking at houses on Zillow.

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B1 US Vox housing zoning bay area family affordable

How the US made affordable homes illegal

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    moge0072008 posted on 2021/10/05
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