We’re currently facing one of the most severe housing crunches in the history of the United States, with escalating homelessness rates and entire generations losing hope of ever becoming homeowners. However, there is a simple solution to this crisis: legalizing duplexes, triplexes, and other forms of light-touch density (LTD) housing. By allowing for more affordable housing options, this would help alleviate the housing shortage and provide opportunities for middle-income households to own a home.
The current housing crisis is primarily a result of long-standing exclusionary zoning laws that restrict most areas of the country to single-family detached homes, effectively banning LTD housing. These laws limit the supply of housing options, particularly for middle-income households. However, by repealing these restrictive zoning laws, we can create more housing opportunities that are both affordable and inclusive.
LTD housing encompasses various types of dwellings, including duplexes, triplexes, quads through eight-plexes, townhouses, cottage courts, accessory dwelling units, and similar structures. Allowing for more units on a single parcel of land naturally makes housing more affordable and accessible, enabling upward mobility for individuals and families. It is simply a matter of repealing the laws that prohibit these housing types.
Fortunately, this solution is already gaining momentum across the nation. California, Austin, and Vermont are among the regions that have passed legislation to promote affordable housing through the legalization of LTD housing. These initiatives, known as HOME (Housing Opportunity and More Efficiency), Home Options for Middle-Income Empowerment, and Housing Opportunities Made for Everyone, recognize that the key to addressing the housing crisis is freeing the market from the constraints of single-family zoning.
The history of exclusionary zoning laws dates back to the early 20th century when a range of housing options was available to people of all classes. However, these variations in housing types also posed a threat to the prevailing segregationist mindset. Zoning laws were then adopted, driven by the U.S. Commerce Department, to restrict residential land to more expensive single-family detached homes while excluding affordable alternatives. These policies replaced private property rights with communal rights and city planners’ opinions, making housing scarce and unaffordable.
Over time, this scarcity and rise in housing prices have contributed to the current housing crunch, particularly in high-demand cities like California. The restrictive land use regulations implemented to delay or prevent the market from responding to increased demand have resulted in home prices far exceeding incomes. This trend has gradually priced out existing residents and potential newcomers and made even older, smaller homes unaffordable.
To address the housing crisis, it is crucial to build more housing and reverse the damage caused by these misguided zoning policies. The solution lies in adopting light-touch density housing types similar to those prevalent in the early 20th century. By implementing by-right LTD zoning across the country, an estimated 930,000 additional housing units could be created annually over the next few decades. This moderate increase in density would facilitate the construction of more affordable and inclusive housing, aligning home prices with incomes and reducing housing displacement pressures.
Houston serves as a prime example of a city that has experienced rapid population and wage growth without sacrificing affordability. The city implemented a LTD law that allowed for smaller lots in 1998. As a result, home prices in the Houston metro area remained below the national level, while cities like Los Angeles experienced significant price increases. The stark contrast in homeless rates between the two cities further emphasizes the importance of enlightened policy solutions to address the housing crisis effectively.
Some argue that investment firms purchasing single-family homes have contributed to the unaffordability issue. While these purchases have increased recently, it is important to recognize that rising home prices precede this trend. Furthermore, the majority of single-family home purchases are made by smaller investors who own fewer than 10 properties, rather than large-scale investment firms. This distinction is often overlooked in the scapegoating narrative.
Despite these challenges, there is cause for optimism as knowledge-based solutions gain traction. Numerous states and cities, such as California, Washington, Oregon, Vermont, Montana, Austin, Minneapolis, and Charlotte, have already passed zoning reforms to scale back single-family detached zoning and legalize LTD housing. Many more jurisdictions are considering similar reforms, recognizing that legalizing light-touch density is the most effective and politically viable way to solve the housing crisis.
In conclusion, legalizing duplexes, triplexes, and other forms of light-touch density housing is the solution we need to address the housing crunch in the United States. By repealing exclusionary zoning laws and allowing for more affordable and inclusive housing options, we can increase the supply of homes for middle-income households. Implementing these reforms nationwide would help close the housing supply gap, ensuring that more Americans have access to affordable housing opportunities. Let us embrace the potential of light-touch density as the key to solving our nation’s housing crisis.