In a post for Brooking Institution’s The Avenue, part of its Metropolitan Policy Program, Jenny Schuetz has a Star Wars joke-filled list of ways renters are “striking back” against restrictive zoning codes:
It is a dark time for renters. Although U.S. housing markets have recovered from the Great Recession, rising rents are driving financial insecurity among low- and moderate-income families throughout the country. In California, a group of YIMBY activists led by state senator Scott Wiener is trying to establish apartment-friendly zones around transit stations, wrestling away control from the dreaded NIMBYs. In the trenches of the remote ice planet known as Minneapolis, Mayor Jacob Frey has made a daring raid on single-family neighborhoods, proposing that fourplexes be allowed by right. Meanwhile, in the nation’s capital, three Democratic Senators are vying to lead the Renter Alliance by offering even more ambitious federal assistance plans for cost-burdened renters.
Schuetz offers a trilogy of ways pro-development forces in urban areas can effectively organize to make housing more affordable.
First, for those YIMBY groups with the strength of a Rebel fleet massing near Sullust, Schuetz recommends going directly for the Death Star through aggressive measures to upzone, such as Scott Wiener’s (unfortunately failed) SB 827, which would have upzoned over 95% of San Francisco, or Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey’s proposal for by-right development for duplexes and buildings holding three to four families.
Second, in cases where NIMBY stormtroopers are able to crush local resistance, help may be found from “the swamp” (no, not the one on Dagobah). Different proposals from Democrats Cory Booker (NJ) and Elizabeth Warren (MA) would combine carrots and sticks in the form of federal funds to provide an added incentive for local governments to improve their regulatory policies. Of course, she warns that these “bounty hunters” must offer strong enough incentives to be effective, lest they prove as ineffective as Boba Fett.
Finally, Schuetz offers a cautionary tale for reformers to avoid the dark side of forces for affordable housing: resist the temptations of rent control. Because the housing affordability crisis is a question of supply rather than demand, rent control reduces the incentive for developers to build, as it reduces their ability to make a return on their investment.
These are helpful tips that YIMBYs would do well to follow in their fight to restore balance to the housing market.