The nation’s most productive metro areas need more housing construction, but local governments in those regions — including ours — give themselves lots of opportunities to stop it.
In the name of discouraging “inappropriate development,” a hundred or so residents of the Riverside section of Cambridgeport signed a petition seeking zoning changes that would make it harder for property owners to add to their homes or build anew. Not so fast, said other residents, who recognized that the move would aggravate a region-wide housing shortage. The Cambridge Planning Board rightly rejected the downzoning proposal earlier this year, but supporters kept pushing. And on Wednesday, there it was, back from the dead, at a hearing before another city panel. (No final action was taken.)
This is the kind of excessive local regulation the Obama White House had in mind recently when it released a remarkable policy paper calling on cities and counties to ease their zoning laws. Housing advocates in the Boston area have been seeking such changes for years, and a budding network of “yes in my back yard” activists is beginning to emerge at a national level. The White House paper only underscores how local zoning obstacles add up to a problem for the entire American economy.
“The growing severity of undersupplied housing markets,” the paper declares, “is jeopardizing housing affordability for working families, increasing income inequality by reducing less-skilled workers’ access to high-wage labor markets, and stifling GDP growth by driving labor migration away from the most productive regions.”
Nobody who dislikes dense urban living should ever buy property in Cambridge, but over the years some residents have persuaded the city to tighten zoning rules to the point that their own neighborhoods could never be rebuilt the same way. The Riverside area had previously been downzoned to the point that 59 percent of existing buildings break the rules, according to the city’s Community Development Department; under the new restrictions, a full 80 percent of existing buildings would be nonconforming.
The Obama administration’s white paper puts forth a “development toolkit” that communities can use to promote more housing construction. Among the suggestions are establishing areas where new development is allowed by right; eliminating off-street parking requirements, which add expense to apartment and condo projects in cases where residents don’t use the spaces; and allowing accessory dwelling units — better known as granny apartments.
As it happens, Cambridge eased its rules on such dwellings this year, but communities throughout the Boston area would do well to take more of the White House’s suggestions.
It’s unusual for Washington to get involved with development issues, which have always been treated as a matter for local governments alone. Then again, K-12 education was always a state and local matter as well, until it became clear that individual districts were using the principle of local control to dodge their own responsibility to serve students well — and until federal policy makers realized that local failures were hindering the nation’s overall economic competitiveness. As a consequence, the US Department of Education has been pressing local systems for years to raise their standards.
The White House policy paper on zoning restrictions puts states and local governments on notice too. In Massachusetts, the Legislature has rejected recent efforts to update an outmoded zoning law that creates too many obstacles to new housing — and that’s a problem not just for white-collar workers who might want to take jobs in Cambridge’s burgeoning lab buildings, but for people across all economic sectors. Allowing a lot more homebuilding in areas with high demand is an excellent way of creating blue-collar jobs, while also addressing the unease many middle-class residents feel in major metro areas nationwide as housing prices grow much faster than their take-home pay.