A proposed infrastructure plan would reward cities that change their zoning laws to allow more apartments and garage conversions in areas zoned for single-family homes.
WASHINGTON – President Joe Biden wants cities to put more apartment buildings and multifamily units, such as converted garages, in areas traditionally zoned for single-family housing. As part of his $2.3 trillion infrastructure plan, cities would allow for smaller lots and for apartment buildings with fewer than six units to be built next to a traditional house.
Current zoning laws that favor single-family homes – known as exclusionary zoning – have disproportionately hurt low-income Americans. Many of them can’t afford to buy a big lot of land, leaving them trapped in crowded neighborhoods earmarked in the past for Black and brown residents, while white families were able to move to single-family areas in the suburbs.
Biden’s proposal would award grants and tax credits to cities that change zoning laws to bolster more equitable access to affordable housing. A house with a white picket fence and a big backyard for a Fourth of July barbecue may be a staple of the American dream, but experts and local politicians say multifamily zoning is key to combating climate change, racial injustice and the nation’s growing affordable housing crisis.
The bill has not been written, but the White House said it wants to see progress by Memorial Day, and to pass legislation this summer.
U.S. Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Secretary Marcia Fudge told USA TODAY that the administration’s plan would support communities looking to undo housing practices that too often discriminate against people of color.
“The result of this sort of investment will be critical to increasing housing options for low- and moderate-income families,” Fudge said.
The push for zoning changes comes as the Biden administration continues to reverse former President Donald Trump’s housing policies aimed at chipping away anti-discrimination and civil rights protections. As part of his re-election push, Trump had accused Democrats of wanting to “abolish the suburbs.”
Under Biden, HUD recently submitted two fair housing rules for review, according to notices posted Tuesday by the Office of Management and Budget. One of the policies would reinstate the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule requiring cities to reverse segregation or risk losing federal funds. The other would restore “disparate impact,” a decades-old legal standard that outlaws discriminatory lending and renting practices.
Federal policy was designed to protect people from discrimination when they are renting or buying a home, but regulating land use and zoning is largely a function of local government. Biden’s infrastructure plan could significantly increase local budgets decimated during the COVID-19 economic recession – an attractive proposal for some mayors who already support affordable housing policies but want cash to cover the cost of these projects.
Mayor Ras Baraka of Newark, New Jersey, said his city plans to “take full advantage” of the federal dollars to bolster a 10-year master planning process and increase access to affordable housing for Black and brown residents.
“We also need more funding to create solutions such as two- and three-family homes,” Baraka said.
Mayor Rosalynn Bliss of Grand Rapids, Michigan, said she looked forward to reviewing the details of the eventual infrastructure bill but thought her city of approximately 198,000 residents was “ahead of the curve” because it eliminated exclusionary zoning 12 years ago.
A majority of municipal governments have refused to eliminate zoning restrictions for decades, in large part because many taxpayers and developers don’t want it.
Officials in Denver, as well as some other cities, have instead made changes to increase equitable development, such as increasing green space and mixed-use real estate, but aren’t ready to rescind single-family zoning, said Denver Mayor Michael Hancock.
“This is quality of life infrastructure that helps build communities, not just buildings,” Hancock said. “It wasn’t about eliminating single-family zoning – which our update did not do – it was about promoting assets every community needed to have a good quality of life.”
Critics of up-zoning – the practice of undoing single-family housing restrictions often referred to as “NIMBY-ism” – say multifamily housing decreases property values. They argue that increased density would strain existing infrastructure such as schools, transportation, stormwater and public safety services.
“A legitimate reason for regulating density is to assure that the density of the residential environment is appropriate for the existing public infrastructure,” urban planners Gerritt Knapp and Nicholas Finio, of the University of Maryland, College Park, wrote in the Journal of the American Planning Association.
Environmental scientists and advocates have also welcomed Biden’s proposal, saying that zoning changes and increased density in cities has the potential to mitigate climate impact for low-income residents and those of color.
Many people of color were shut out from homeownership during decades of systemic redlining practices, where financial institutions limited mortgage loans and housing insurance to residents in specific geographic areas.
One study in Climate, an academic journal, found once-redlined neighborhoods in 108 cities experienced higher daily temperatures compared to non-redlined areas – in some cases by up to 10 degrees Fahrenheit. The report showed previously redlined neighborhoods had fewer parks, trees and were closer to industrial areas, which use up more electricity.
Heat-related illnesses led to record-breaking deaths more than any other natural disaster in the last decade, according to the American Public Health Association, a Washington, D.C.-based organization for health professionals.
“Though the maps may no longer have redlines on them, the patterns and boundaries they established are much harder to undo,” said Stephanie Rosendorf, a Florida-based attorney and urban policy teaching assistant at Harvard Extension School.
The revelation is troubling, as 79.5 million Americans have reported being unable to pay their household expenses, including electricity, with temperatures expected to rise over the coming spring and summer months.
Eliminating exclusionary zoning as a way to build more climate-resilience multifamily housing can help address both the quality of life and the utility costs of low-income residents, said Richard Lamondin, CEO of Ecosystems, an energy conservation company that retrofits bathroom fixtures to cut water usage by 40%. His company has projects in over 30 states, many of them affordable housing units.
“It’s a no-brainer to continue to push this,” Lamondin said.
Biden’s plan is being debated at a time when the country’s affordable housing stock is far below the level of need. COVID-19 has made that need worse, triggering a buying spree as prospective homeowners seek to take advantage of low mortgage interest rates. At the same time, millions of out of work or underemployed Americans are struggling to keep a roof over their heads, and others have become homeless.
In all, nearly 40 million people are under threat of eviction and median listing prices for homes in the United States have risen across the country by over 15% over the past year.
The key challenge in the housing market is a lack of supply, explained Tendayi Kapfidze, chief economist at Lending Tree, an online lending marketplace headquartered in the United States.
By the National Multifamily Housing Council’s analysis, the United States would need to add an average of 328,000 units every year by 2030 to meet the demand of a growing population. The nation has succeeded in hitting that mark only three times since 1989.
“Increasing density should lead to more supply in the most in-demand areas. Multifamily units also often have lower prices than single-family units so are more affordable,” Kapfidze said.
Christopher Ptomey, executive director of the Urban Land Institute’s Terwilliger Center for Housing in Washington, D.C., said opposition to up-zoning throughout the country is due to a misunderstanding of how zoning affects property values and can disadvantage people unable to access single-family neighborhoods.
The rate of homeownership has been consistently above 71% for white Americans, just above 41% for Black Americans, 45% for Latino Americans and 53% for Asian Americans.
Julián Castro, secretary of Housing and Urban Development under President Barack Obama, said he looks forward to seeing how cities will respond if Congress passes Biden’s zoning push.
“Too often, zoning regulations trap low-income families, especially families of color, in segregated neighborhoods and price them out of housing opportunity,” Castro said.
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