So much for all that Agenda 21 paranoia.
Yesterday the White House released something they called a Housing Development Toolkit. It took aim at many of the worst practices of local government, from a resistance to incremental development to mandatory parking minimums. It provided an outline for local governments looking to "modernize" their land use regulations. As a feign at bully pulpit rhetoric for policy geeks, it was a fun read.
The toolkit listed the benefits of "modernizing" — I keep putting that word in quotes because I find it strange yet it is the word they used — and, while many advocates are focusing on a transportation recommendation for more transit use, I actually found the report's first observation to be more interesting and relevant:
Housing regulation that allows supply to respond elastically to demand helps cities protect homeowners and home values while maintaining housing affordability.
"Allowing supply to respond elastically to demand....." That's a really painful way to describe what is commonly thought of as a market. Yes, when the market is able to respond to a lack of supply and an increase of demand by building more housing, it helps bring supply and demand into balance at lower prices. Zoning regulations, especially those that seek to preserve neighborhoods under glass once they are established, distort the feedback mechanism of the housing market. I'm in.
What's odd is their inclusion of "protect homeowners and home values" in that thought. I would agree that having freer markets for housing construction would bring prices down in many parts of the country. However, I don't think it's clear that we can do that and simultaneously maintain the inflated home values we are trying to artificially sustain. In fact, re-inflating the housing bubble has been the policy goal of the current administration as well as the Federal Reserve, leading to a string of policies that benefit current homeowners and debtors at the expense of prospective buyers and savers.
Of course, it could be that the Obama administration has some covert Austrian economists who are seeking to protect homeowners from government-induced housing bubbles, but I doubt it. It's more likely that this is an attempt at a politically-happy spin on the difficult policy paradox of local zoning: Our debt economy needs inflated housing prices, yet inflated housing prices have terrible economic consequences over the long term. It might be too much to hope that they would bite that one off.
Still, the document has a lot of things straight out of the Strong Towns playbook (it actually reminded me of Andrew Burleson's article "10 Steps to Fix a City"). The first five recommendations in the Housing Development Toolkit are absolute no-brainers; if you're not doing these things already, your city is falling behind. Here they are, with some related stuff we've written along the way.
1. Establishing by-right development
- Strong Towns Strength Test
- Housing affordability is the result of articifial scarcity by Andrew Price
- A case for height restrictions by Charles Marohn
2. Taxing vacant land or donating it to non-profit developers
3. Streamlining or shortening permitting processes and timelines
4. Eliminate off-street parking requirements
We've done a ton of work on this, so much so that we have an entire page devoted to the topic. We also organize an annual Black Friday Parking event to draw awareness and maintain a map of cities that have eliminated their off-street parking requirements.
5. Allowing accessory dwelling units
- Strong Towns Strength Test
- The Challenge of Building Rental Housing by Spencer Gardner
- The Trials of Tiny Homebuilding by Rachel Quednau
- A Strong Towns Response to Homelessness by Rachel Quednau
- Affordable Housing that Might Have Been by Johnny Sanphillippo
The remaining five recommendations are quite a bit more wonky and have risk planner/zoner pitfalls. For example, Establish Density Bonuses, which might make sense in some places but is more often just a license for planners to do some awful things. If you've been with us any appreciable amount of time, you probably know what I think of density as a metric of success.
Still, for as much hype as this document is getting in the circles we frequent, I found it rather revealing — and a little depressing — for what wasn't included. Obviously, the federal government can't do much to make these things come about beyond bribing cities with money it doesn't have. It could, however, make some changes to federal policy that would be really significant. How about we eliminate the distorting effects of federal housing subsidies? How about we stop subsidizing the horizontal expansion of cities through our transportation policies? What if we balanced our obsession with growth with policies that promoted stability?
All of that gives this White House document the feel of looking at the splinter in your neighbor's eye while ignoring the beam in your own. Still, I'd rather have it than not and, if it inspires more cities to start building Strong Towns, it should be seen as a positive. Given what we are all suffering through this election season, it may be a long time before we get back to even this small hill of coherency.