America’s Chronic Housing Shortage

In his recent City Journal article, “Free to Build,” Edward Glaeser begins to reframe the zoning-driven housing crisis as a national phenomenon, requiring national solutions, rather than a merely local or coastal problem. Advocating for the use of federal policy to unwind the cumulative, national effects of zoning overreach strikes me as a stark milestone in the right-leaning policy world. That said, I think this may represent one facet of a pent-up, multipartisan response to the NIMBYism that, for generations, has damaged the US economy and environment through land-use policies that promote rent-seeking behavior and de facto segregation at the expense of traditional, participatory, incremental urban growth.

Photo by the author of some traditional apartment houses located in Cape May, New Jersey, illustrating how traditional urban housing is an artfcat of more liberal historical building laws.
Traditional urban housing is an artifact of more liberal historical building laws. (TMP)

A Top Ten List for Urban Code Reform

R. John Anderson has an article at CNU’s Public Square identifying ten code-reform priorities that would help to address the endemic shortage of housing units in the United States. Several of these principles align with recommendations I’ve touched on here at LT, or in other articles, including: provisions to reduce parking requirements for new units; zoning that allows accessory dwelling units (ADUs) to be built, as-of-right; amendments to state and local building codes to allow small multifamily (Missing Middle) buildings to be built in accordance with the International Residential Code (IRC), rather than the more compliance-costly International Building Code (IBC); and a general liberalization of structural massing requirements and lot-size minimums, to facilitate more efficient uses of scarce metropolitan land parcels. This top-ten approach strikes me as a practical summary of salient points for code reformers to keep in mind. David Letterman would be proud.

To this list, I would add: amending state subdivision statutes (or municipal ordinances, in some places) to actively encourage the creation of new, tiny, privately-owned lots. I have in mind parcels less than 30 feet wide at the street line, with no side yard requirements. This would allow traditional attached buildings to be built in diverse designs, as part of a coherent overall pattern. Over time, this would foster the growth of a variety of small housing options, along with the richness and equity of a broad base of participatory property ownership. Ultimately, it would allow the kinds of tight urban blocks to be generated today, in plausible settings, that already characterize our favored old neighborhoods.