NIMBY makes housing unaffordable

February 2016

As most of us are aware, finding housing at a reasonable cost is a problem – not just on Cape Cod, but all over the country. And it’s getting worse every year.

“Federal guidelines say families paying more than 30 percent of income may have difficulty paying for food, clothing and other necessities,” says Governing Magazine in its report of a study which shows that at least half of the people in 27 states are paying more than 30 percent of their income on rent. “That’s a sea change from 2000, when no states were in that position.”

It may seem hard to believe, but there are many households that pay more than half of their income in rent, and that number is going to increase dramatically in the next decade according to recent research by Harvard University’s Joint Center for Housing Studies and Enterprise Community Partners.

“The number of households spending more than 50 percent of their income on rent is expected to rise at least 11 percent from 11.8 million to 13.1 million by 2025…with the largest increases expected among older adults, Hispanics and single-person households.”

When you have to pay more than half of your income for housing, it’s not possible to have enough left for the other necessities of life, like food. No society can thrive when a large percentage of its people are in this situation.

The fact is that we don’t have enough housing. For decades now, housing growth has not kept pace with population growth, and government’s efforts to build affordable housing or provide rent subsidies for privately owned units have simply not been enough. Every year more of us are paying more than we should have to for housing costs.

Not In My Back Yard (NIMBY)

I believe that the only solution that will work is the one we resist the most, even though it will not cost us any money: Increase the supply of housing with more liberal zoning.

Zoning laws have severely limited the development of new multi-family units and left us with a housing stock out of sync with our population. If we change our zoning laws to encourage multi-family development, our housing stock will grow as it should, and rents will stop climbing faster than income.

I know most of us have no interest in multi-family units in our neighborhoods, partly because we’re convinced that they will harm our property values. One unit per acre is dense enough for most of us.

But our fears are unjustified. Multi-family units often increase in value faster than single-family homes. I once owned a two-family in Newton – two units on less than a quarter of an acre. I paid $72,000 for it in 1977 and shortly thereafter they put about 25 condo units across the street in what had been a parking lot for a school.

You would have thought that all those units crammed into my neighborhood would have damaged my property values, but they didn’t. Today both the house I owned and the condos are worth about 12 times more.

At least 600 families have defied local zoning in Newton and added illegal accessory apartments to their single-family homes, thus increasing their value.

The first thing we can do is to allow many of our single-family houses to add these accessory apartments if they wish to. Then we should look for suitable spaces in our towns where apartments could be built at densities of up to 20 per acre (don’t pass out, modern septic systems can handle this). Such measures could fix the housing crisis over time.

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