Should Single-Family Neighborhoods Be Able to Buy Their Way out of Building More Housing?


For as long as they’ve existed, neighborhoods that pride themselves on their exclusive single-family housing landscape have fought back against the notion that they should be forced to change as their city population grows. Call it NIMBYism (not in my backyard) or call it neighborhood pride, but there’s no doubt that these conversations can dominate a local housing debate—and, depending on who you ask, they can be a harmful force that keeps our towns under glass, and affordable housing out of the reach of the citizens who need it most, in the neighborhoods that might provide the most opportunity.

That’s why a few corners of the internet are abuzz about an interesting (if not entirely new) idea: a “cap-and-trade” system for single-family strongholds.

Cap and trade systems are better known in the environmental policy sphere—think companies in high-polluting industries that face new government emissions limits paying a more sustainable company for the right to use their extra emissions credits that they’ve got lying around. But when applied to the housing conversation, single family neighborhoods aren’t looking to exceed a cap—they’re trading money for the right to keep a cap firmly on their population numbers. New Jersey, for instance, utilized a cap and trade system for twenty years, inspired by their Mount Laurel doctrine, which required all cities to produce a certain quota of affordable housing—even if those cities had a strong identity that didn’t include apartments and renters. Frustrated, they crafted a counter-proposal: gated communities and suburban enclaves could pay the poorer towns down the road to take on their share of the affordable housing mandate for them. The poor town got a little richer; the rich town continued on happily as a utopia of deep front yards and three-car garages.

But according to some, this cap and trade arrangement isn’t a clear win-win. And if you believe a recent article from Planetizen, cap and trade systems may not work in the way that we think, and the reason why has to do with some complex psychology that might surprise you.

In this episode of Upzoned, Kea and Chuck dive into this intellectually tricky and fascinating idea. Do cap and trade programs keep low income families out of the affluent neighborhoods, when moving the poor into richer areas has been proven to improve their health and financial outcomes for generations? Or is cap and trade a healthy way to move sorely needed capital into the neighborhoods that need it most? Check out their conversation, then weigh in with your thoughts in the comments.

Then, in the Downzone, Chuck and Kea talk about the media that’s been filling their winter days. Chuck has been reading along with his eighth grader’s latest school assignment, the very moving Night by Elie Wiesel. And Kea is something of a new mom herself—she just adopted a brand new puppy—but in between cuddles and housebreaking sessions, she’s enjoying the gorgeously shot deep-sea nature documentary series, Blue Planet II.