Young professional perspective: Affordable housing crisis calls for open minds, looser zoning
America is facing a housing affordability crisis. The causes of this crisis are well documented: reduced housing supply, long-term repercussions from the Great Recession, and COVID-19, among other issues, each contribute to the lack of affordable homes available across the country.
Springfield is no exception. The National Association of Realtors estimated that housing affordability in the Springfield Metropolitan Area declined almost 11 percent in 2018. This trend continued as Springfield experienced an increase in housing prices of 10.8 percent in the last year alone. Statistics help quantify the problem, but readers will recognize this fact through their own experiences: it’s tough to buy an affordable house in a good location in Springfield right now.
Housing affordability is especially problematic for folks who are just now buying their first homes, starting families, and building wealth. Bloomberg recently estimated that folks born after 1980 own homes at significantly lower rates than their parents did at the same age. The lack of affordable housing is a central driver of that problem. While the causes of the lack of affordable housing are numerous, the solutions are not ellusive. And one great place to start addressing the issue is by getting rid of the NIMBYs.
“Not in my back yard,” or “NIMBY” is a characterization of people who oppose proposed developments in their local area, or similarly support strict land use and zoning regulations to prevent the construction of affordable housing. NIMBYs are empowered, especially locally, by strict zoning rules that prevent developers from developing affordable housing developments without pursuing a costly public-rezoning process without any guaranteed outcomes. These restrictions are, unfortunately, effective deterrents to many developers who would otherwise wish to build affordable housing developments in Springfield. And NIMBYs consistently succeed in blocking developments that would increase Springfield’s housing supply and help drive down prices.
Recently, though, other areas of the country have begun to loosen zoning restrictions to enable construction of more diverse housing types. Oregon, for example, recently passed a law that enables Oregon developers to circumvent single-family zoning restrictions and authorizes the construction of multi-family housing to increase the housing supply. In other places around the country, municipalities have expanded the use of “by-right” zoning to alleviate the need for owners to obtain conditional use permits or variances for developments that otherwise comply with existing zoning rules. These innovative approaches show real merit, and they should be considered in Springfield.
Passing new zoning rules that make it easier to construct multi-family housing projects in desirable parts of the city would simultaneously drive down housing costs, encourage younger families to choose Springfield to live and work, and attract new investment in our area. To make those necessary changes, we need more than just changed regulations, we need people to adopt a more pro-development mindset. If we stop saying “not in my back yard,” and start saying “yes, build that in my neighborhood,” we can ensure Springfield is a more affordable place to live for everyone.
Ben Shantz is a trial attorney with Spencer Fane LLP and is a member of The Network’s leadership council.