YIMBY housing advocates ask, are you dense?

The great YIMBY-NIMBY War rages on and what’s at stake is density. The YIMBYs want to add it by lifting land-use restrictions, particularly in transit-friendly urban areas—thus allowing housing supply to meet demand and lowering artificially high housing prices. NIMBYs want to prevent adding density, thereby preserving property values, personal wealth, and their ability to grow veggies in their backyards.

California is the war’s frontline. According to McKinsey, the state ranks 49th for housing units per capita, its real estate prices are rising 3x faster than household incomes, and it loses $140 billion per year in revenue due to the housing crisis. Much of the shortage flows from land use restrictions, which make it impossible to build in many areas and tags an additional $75k in various impact fees for every new housing unit built.

But if the YIMBYs get their way, State Senator Scott Weiner’s California SB 827 might prove to be the war’s D-Day (YIMBYs are the Allies and Weiner is their Ike, in case you were wondering).

Dubbed, the “Transit-rich Housing Bonus,” 827 would encourage high-density housing near regular transit service. The normal use-case would be upzoning single-family residential areas to allow developers to build up to 85 foot high buildings within a 1/4 mile of a public transit station. The breadth of potentially eligible areas is epic, as is the potential impact on California’s housing supply problem.

The bill has major detractors, from the Sierra Club to LA City Councilman Paul Koretz, who fears neighborhoods “with little 1920s, ‘30s and ‘40s single-family homes [will] look like Dubai 10 years later.”

What Koretz and his NIMBY ilk fail to address is whether this potential for a Dubaian dystopia (whose veracity is highly dubious) is worse than California’s right-here, right-now housing affordability crisis—one which BuildZoom’s Issi Romem’s says has resulted in “runaway housing price appreciation…with profound implications for younger generations’ ability to put down roots, live near family, raise children and prosper” (more from Romem in a minute).

But 827 also has supporters, one of whom is almost certainly pro-housing Governor Brown. Weiner is tweaking the bill and it’s expected to be heard in committee next month, and a vote could occur by the fall.

Not just California

The winds of war are making their way east too. NYC nonprofit Regional Plan Association released a report supporting the repeal of the 1961 State’s Multiple Dwelling Law, which forbids, “the creation of Class A residential buildings with a Floor Area Ratio (FAR) larger than 12.0, meaning residences could not be larger than 12 times the size of the lot that they were built on.”

The report specifically targets non-historic high-rise districts like Midtown, Downtown Brooklyn, LIC, and a few others. It says these areas have the jobs, transit, and other infrastructure to support more development, and that ultimately the law is arbitrary—e.g. commercial buildings in midtown have a FAR of 15 and routinely buy air rights to build higher.

Like California, the logic follows that more housing equals more affordability. Hey, it’s working in Japan, why not here?

While both battles are valiant, California’s is particularly compelling due to the fact that it’s targeting urban cores and transit-friendly suburban sprawl.   

Back to Issi Romem, who did some great analysis about housing density patterns. What he found was that the densest urban hubs are actually adding housing at a decent clip (the “how can there not be enough housing when I see all those cranes” effect). But metro suburbs have been flatlining for decades.

Using LA as a case study, he points to the fact that suburban housing takes up “52.4 percent of the metro area’s residentially-developed footprint, yet…accounts for only 10.3 percent of new homes.” Meanwhile, dense areas like DTLA “have grown to encompass a modest 4.5 percent of the residentially-developed footprint in recent years…[but make up] 13.8 percent of the total [of new housing].”

Romen found LA’s growth pattern occurring across the U.S.

With every U.S. county experiencing some form of affordable housing crisis and housing affordability and zoning topping the list of problems from a recent survey of 115 mayors, only the densest human would not consider land use restrictions affecting housing density one of, if not the, most important issue affecting U.S. housing development.

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