By David M. Greenwald
Davis, CA – UC researchers explore a key question of why local governments tend to underproduce housing. What they found is telling but not all that surprising: “the negative impacts of building more housing are local, but the positive impacts of building more housing are regional or state-wide in scale.”
That means, he argues, “local governments – which will focus on the local, negative impacts of housing production – are less likely to produce housing than a larger-scale government.”
That makes a lot of sense from what we have seen. It is not that we have not seen harms locally—rising housing prices, declining enrollment in schools, vanishing middle-middle. But those, to most people living in the community, at least those who are permanent residents and own their homes, pale in comparison to the negatives of building more housing—traffic, loss of a small town, character, open space, reduced vista and other sightlines, etc.
Eric Biber of UC Berkeley along with his colleagues published a paper, “How the Scale of Land-Use Regulation Affects Housing Affordability, Equity, and the Climate.”
Their abstract notes: “Housing costs in major coastal metropolitan areas nationwide have skyrocketed, impacting people, the economy, and the environment. Land-use regulation, controlled primarily at the local level, plays a major role in determining housing production. In response to this mounting housing crisis, scholars, policymakers, and commentators are debating whether greater state involvement in local land-use decision making is the best path forward.”
They find that “there are good reasons to believe that continuing on the current path—with local control of land-use regulation as it is—will lead to persistent underproduction of housing.”
In his write-up, Biber notes, “Most land-use regulation in the United States is done by local governments: cities, counties, towns, villages. In California, much of the legislation intended to increase housing production has sought to strip away or limit local control over land-use regulation.”
He explains that those efforts have in general received political and legal resistance, “including lawsuits alleging that the state does not have the authority to limit local control over land-use, and activist groups challenging state intervention.”
A big issue here: “Small-scale local governments are responsive to their constituents. And those constituents will be acutely conscious of the negative impacts of housing development – the dust and noise of construction; increased noise and traffic from more people living in the area; reduced privacy and light and air because of taller buildings; more people using public services like schools and parks.”
However, “housing developments have broader beneficial impacts.”
He argues: “At the regional or statewide level, more housing will reduce the cost of housing. That in turn is beneficial to the regional or statewide economy.”
He also notes that more housing provides opportunities to move to a local area.
Here he notes “more housing can provide an opportunity for socioeconomic mobility, as people can move into metropolitan areas that are increasingly the source of economic growth and prosperity in the United States.”
Furthermore, there are climate benefits to this as well, as living in a major metro area rather than the exurban fringe “will advance climate change goals that have national or global benefits – infill housing in urban and suburban areas allows for less auto-dependent lifestyles that reduce carbon emissions.”
What we have seen in public discourse as well as the discussions over the years is most people are not moved by those positive factors. Unless they are employed in the business growth sector, they are unmoved by job concerns, unless a renter, unmoved by the scarcity of housing or high housing prices—in fact, many local residents benefit from both.
Where does that leave us? It leaves us with a local populace that will largely be resistant to new housing or arguments for it, and a state government increasingly at odds with the leadership and citizens of local communities over housing policies.
What is Biber’s solution to all of this: “This evidence provides support for policies that affirmatively limit or shape local control over land-use. Unbridled local control over land-use will result in underproduction of housing – just as we have seen over the past few decades in California.”
He continues: “That does not mean that there is no role for local control in land-use regulation and housing, but local governments should be required to ensure they meet regional and statewide needs for housing, and held accountable when they do not do so.”
Biber concludes: “Our work strongly supports the efforts in states like California to advance legislation that gives greater state control over land-use and requires local governments to do their share to advance regional and statewide housing goals.”
As we reported recently however, HCD has such a mandate, but for the most part has failed to exercise it.
A few weeks ago, the San Francisco Chronicle cataloged communities out of compliance with the limited state guidelines we have now. The problem is that the HCD is not enforcing the laws and making sure that submitted housing elements are in compliance with new state laws.
Despite lack of compliance, the Chronicle wrote, “the state signed off anyway.”
“We put these rules in place for a reason,” Senator Scott Wiener said. “HCD needs to enforce the rules to the letter.”