The postwar American Dream of a two-story home in the suburbs with a white picket fence is older than Leave it to Beaver and The Honeymooners. But just as Americans’ tastes in television have changed, so too have their tastes in living conditions.
Markets are great at adapting to accommodate the changing tastes of consumers. Regulations, on the other hand, have some catching up to do, as R Street’s Eli Lehrer writes in The Hill:
While everyone needs a place to sleep and access to a toilet, just about everything else found in a typical suburban tract home ought to be optional. For instance, those who want to eat all meals out or “cook” in a microwave don’t need a full kitchen, just like people who use their cars only on weekends may find it perfectly acceptable to park a mile or two away from home, and people who can put up with showering at a gym every day should certainly have that right. Dormitory and even open-plan barracks-style housing should be available to those who want it. The fact that most people want more privacy and comforts than these settings provide is irrelevant: lots of people live in neighborhoods and housing types that plenty of others wouldn’t like.
In addition to the more obvious restrictions zoning and land-use regulations place on development (such as minimum lot sizes and single-family zoned areas), the inflexibility of many urban zoning and land-use ordinances restrict innovations to better fit both homeowners’ and renters’ needs.
For this housing boom to happen, the first steps are obvious: so long as the spaces meet basic safety and sanitation requirements, substantially any area should be open to letting people build and live there. If a property owner wants to convert a garage into a “granny flat,” transform a few floors of an office building into apartments, or build some low-cost housing units in a former warehouse, the law shouldn’t stand in their way.
But changing the laws for zoning and planning isn’t going to be enough; laws also need to change to allow property owners to experiment with different ways of making money off of different kinds of housing. While it is not practical to eliminate the package of “tenants’ rights” associated with conventional apartments in nearly every state, styles of housing that aren’t appropriate for families with children should give landlords and tenants more latitude to figure out popular, profitable ways to provide housing that people want and can afford.
Homeowners, “concerned residents,” and other NIMBY types have come out in opposition to such innovations in the past. For example, The Seattle Times published an editorial against a proposed change to allow “mother-in-law” or “tiny” homes in single-family zoned neighborhoods, and the Berkeley Zoning Board voted down a shared-living style apartment building last month.
Lehrer makes an important point: across-the-board changes to land-use regulations are long overdue in many cities, but YIMBYs can start small by embracing policies that change the way we think about housing.