Here’s Why You Should Support That New Building Going Up in Your Neighborhood

published Jul 22, 2020
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multi-family building
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The American Dream takes on as many shapes and forms as there are Americans to imagine it. But one particular version of that vision has endured through the decades: that of a tidy Colonial on a grassy lot with a picket fence out front. 

There’s nothing wrong with that dream. It’s a lovely one! There’s a reason children draw cute houses with smoking chimneys and lollipop trees in the yard. A majority of Americans live in single family homes, even more wish they did, and detached houses now make up more than a third of rental housing

But the problem is that in far too many communities, that’s the only version of the American Dream allowed. 

In many American suburbs, nearly every acre of residential land is zoned exclusively for single-family homes. Even in major cities like Los Angeles and Seattle, it’s straight-up illegal to build anything but a single-family house on most residential lots without going through a difficult and headache-inducing zoning variance appeal process. In other suburbs, multi-family housing is technically permitted in a few spots—but only in theory. They’re discouraged in practice by a “paper wall” of regulations, like unrealistic minimum lot sizes. 

Why does that matter? Insisting that all housing be single-family is an exclusionary zoning tactic: It blocks the types of housing that would be more accessible to lower-income residents, including minorities and immigrants. 

As historian Richard Rothstein notes in “The Color of Law”, such zoning practices were quite intentional and rooted in racism. “To prevent lower-income African Americans from living in neighborhoods where middle-class whites resided, local and federal officials began in the 1910s to promote zoning ordinances to reserve middle-class neighborhoods for single-family homes that lower-income families of all races could not afford,” Rothstein writes

Communities that still lean on single-family zoning today (or other exclusionary rules, such as minimum lot sizes) to block the construction of new apartment buildings, affordable housing complexes, or even small duplexes or triplexes—often in the name of preserving home values or the town’s character—continue to segregate our built landscape. 

“Multifamily construction is significantly cheaper than single-family homes,” says Jarred Johnson, chief operating officer of Transit Matters. “So, full stop, single-family-only zoning is discriminatory towards poor people and towards minorities. It limits the choice of many low-income families, young families, and seniors living on a fixed income to be able to live in transit-rich or job-rich neighborhoods.” 

If the intent is to keep certain types of people out, it’s working. In a study of 50 metro areas, researchers found that suburban restrictions on the density of residential development contributed significantly to increased class segregation over a 10-year period.  Meanwhile, further research by Northeastern University and the Boston Foundation found a strong positive link between new multifamily housing in a community and an increased share of non-white households. 

A community with diverse housing options—homes of all different sizes, types, and price points, including rental apartments and multifamily units—lends itself to a greater diversity of residents, says Soni Gupta, director of housing and neighborhoods for the Boston Foundation

“We know households of color are disproportionately represented among lower income households. When you create housing that’s more affordable or a more diverse housing stock that includes smaller units at lower price points—whether it’s rental or homeownership—you by default are creating opportunities for households of color,” Gupta says.

While building more homes of any sort will help ease our housing shortage, it’s multifamily construction in particular that could address our longstanding patterns of segregation. “If you build a bunch of single-family homes, that doesn’t provide too many opportunities for people of different backgrounds. It’s really tied to multifamily housing,” says Alicia Sasser Modestino, a public policy professor at Northeastern University. “Municipalities that experienced a reduction in racial segregation had larger increases in the supply of multifamily housing, not just total housing units.” 

Indeed, there’s no silver-bullet solution to huge societal challenges like housing affordability, segregation, and climate change. But among smart-growth urbanists, encouraging residential density comes pretty darn close to a panacea. 

That’s because clustering homes closer together can help create a virtuous cycle. For starters, just building more homes can relieve price pressure during a housing shortage, and multifamily construction allows for more (and generally smaller, more affordable) units to be built per lot. 

That increased housing density also makes public transit more efficient, because more riders live close enough to use the service more often. “And residents of multifamily housing are less likely to have a car, meaning they are more likely to rely on transit,” Johnson adds. 

That, in turn, reduces car dependence, making a walkable, car-free lifestyle more viable—which increases sales at local retailers and restaurants, reduces reliance on fossil fuels, and opens up housing options to lower-income households who don’t own a vehicle. And that frees up even more land to house people, shops, or trees, instead of parked cars

All of this is why there’s a small but growing YIMBY (Yes, In My Backyard) movement afoot that is more welcoming of new housing developments—and why some places, including the city of Minneapolis and the state of Oregon, have banned single-family-only zoning altogether.  

“That doesn’t mean people can’t build single-family homes,” notes Anthony Flint, a senior fellow at the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy. “Just that no neighborhood can allow only single-family homes. In Minneapolis, all neighborhoods must allow duplexes and triplexes as well.” 

It’ll take time for such “upzoning” measures to lead to more housing, but it’s a key step. “And it’s important to point out that single-family homes aren’t bad or a problem—not at all,” Flint adds. “It’s more of a ‘yes, and’ scenario—communities allowing a mix of housing options. Atlanta has taken a good swing at this with various policy changes and incentives.”

Yet, dense new development often faces strict opposition from local residents. Researchers at Boston University’s Initiative on Cities analyzed the minutes of public zoning meetings in nearly a hundred Massachusetts communities, and found that attendees skewed toward older white male homeowners, most of whom opposed new housing development. Residents who oppose new housing developments are often referred to as NIMBYs (Not In My Backyard).

The prevalence of NIMBYs is not entirely surprising, since existing homeowners may have hundreds of thousands of dollars invested in their homes, and are understandably skittish about any change that could threaten their property value’s fortune. Not to mention that the disruptions caused by a new construction project are most heavily borne by a few nearby neighbors, while the benefits are more diffuse and less likely to entice casual supporters to attend a boring weeknight zoning meeting. 

But the fact is, equitable housing projects need support. And, in something of a Catch-22, the residents who might back a new housing complex in an exclusive suburb are the same ones who can’t yet afford to live there and voice their approval of it. 

So if local officials want to upzone your single-family neighborhood to allow for denser housing, or if a new apartment building, condo complex, or affordable housing development is being proposed nearby, consider voicing your support. Don’t be a NIMBY. Be a YIMBY.