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Cities “Upzone” to Fix Housing Shortages

Cities across the U.S. are changing their land-development codes to allow for more units on lots, reports The Wall Street Journal (subscription).

What’s going on: Municipalities nationwide “are enacting such ‘upzoning’ measures as a way to try to meet housing demand and curtail soaring housing costs that often make it nearly impossible for teachers, firefighters and other middle-class workers to find homes in the cities where they work.”

  • Areas including Northern Virginia, Boston, Dallas and Portland, Oregon, are considering or have already changed their regulations.

The details: A recent zoning change in Arlington County, Virginia, just outside Washington, D.C., allows for “up to six housing units per lot in areas previously reserved for detached, single-family homes. The goal is for more duplexes, triplexes and townhomes to boost so-called missing middle housing stock.”

  • The city council of Newton, Massachusetts, passed a zoning plan last month to increase housing-unit capacity, and Austin, Texas, changed its code late last year to allow up to three units on each single-family lot.

​​​​​​​Challenges: These amendments have been met with some resistance, however.

  • “In Dallas, City Council Member Cara Mendelsohn has come out against the potential changes because she said it would affect the character of the neighborhoods, and she doesn’t believe it will help reduce housing costs.”
  • Others say upping the homes-per-lot allowance could displace lower-income residents because “higher-density developments” can raise property values and therefore rents.

Ask an economist: Allowing for more construction on existing land is a simple way to boost housing availability, said NAM Chief Economist Chad Moutray.

  • One of the challenges facing new home construction—both single-family and multifamily—is the lack of available lots, with affordability and workforce challenges also cited by builders as concerns,” he said. “This approach is one way that cities and developers are solving this problem.”
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