Density can help the Housing Shortage

How will Austin Solve its Housing Problem
  • The United States appears to have a housing shortage crisis. Especially when it comes to affordable housing.
  • A major cause of this is the history of exclusionary zoning – including single family housing restrictions.
  • Its time for cities to allow significant upzoning to increase their density and get rid of single family zoning.

As I was looking around the internet to find inspiration for this week’s blog post, I kept seeing similar articles in local websites – residential housing prices are increasing rapidly. To nobody’s surprise, the reason for this rapid increase is a lack of housing in general. In many cities, supply of residential housing is extremely low. And this, of course, increases the cost of that housing.

What has caused this seemingly nationwide shortage of housing? And can anything be done to help solve the problem? That’s what we are going to discuss this week in the blog entry.

One thing before I start – there is only so much time in a day and this is a very complicated issue. So I’m going to cover a few of the big issues surrounding this topic. But it is certainly not an exhaustive recitation of the situation. For that, there are probably books on the topic. If interested, support your local bookstore and search one out.

Does the US have a Housing Crisis?

As I wrote above, it sure seems like there is a housing shortage across our country. When browsing the internet this week, it was easy to find articles detailing this issue. From Austin to Dallas to nationwide – it seems like many cities are having housing shortage issues.

This is, undoubtedly, a complicated issue. And I’m sure that some people would argue there is no shortage or, if there is, that it is not a crisis. But for our blog purposes, we are deferring to the numerous articles that have been written throughout the country. And it sure seems like it’s a common theme in many cities that lack of housing supply is a big issue.

What Caused this Shortage and How do we Fix It?

There are many factors that go into a housing shortage. And to truly examine all of them would take a space a lot bigger than this nominally commercial real estate blog. But I do want to talk about one of them – and that’s exclusionary zoning.

As you most likely know, many cities were set up with racist zoning areas. For example, the City of Austin specifically set up an area in East Austin to try to funnel black Americans to live there. In addition, many neighborhoods had racist deed restrictions, which would not allow black Americans to live in the neighborhood.

Thankfully, court rulings and civil rights legislation has done away with these explicitly racist zoning and deed restrictions. But a way around that for many neighborhoods was to set up single family home restrictions that required large lots. This set an income floor for neighborhoods which, when these were initially instituted, were very often used to exclude black Americans.

Need More Density

Unfortunately, unlike the explicitly racist rules, single family residential is still very prevalent in our cities. Neighborhood groups continue to use their power to protect this zoning. To be clear – while this has a racist history, I am explicitly NOT accusing neighborhood groups of protecting single family zoning for racist purposes. It is likely done to preserve the neighborhood that they currently have.

The problem with that is – we need more housing. And the best way to do that is to increase the density of an area. We need to build more townhomes, apartments, condos – this is the way to get more housing in a smaller area. Increasing density can decrease commute times, make areas more walkable and livable, and help the environment.

Unfortunately, cities have been too slow to adapt upzoning and allow more density. City Councils continue to allow low density zoning in the highest population areas.* And, as a result, they are significantly contributing to the housing crisis that exists throughout the country. The time has come, however, for city councils to change their tune and end single family zoning.

*Austin residents may recall that we tried to pass some new zoning with Code Next – but after stalling for years at City Council, it was finally shot down by the courts after challenges from local residents.

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