How The System Suffocates The Natural Production of Housing
Updated: Jun 26, 2020
People are always trying to build more housing, but it's the system of zoning, land use rules, and complaints from nearby residents with no skin in the game that prevent it from being built.
A rezoning case at last week's zoning hearing in Charlotte, NC, offers a perfect example of how cities across the country regularly stand in the way of getting new units onto the market. While it appears that the project did make it beyond the hearing, the entire affair is an excellent primer on how hard it is to produce normal housing. At their June 15th meeting, the Charlotte council heard a rezone case of a developer trying to build over 100 units of housing about 2 miles from downtown. The site is an old wrecking yard immediately adjacent to a bike path that leads directly to the central core. Unprompted and unsubsidized, the developers offered a certain number of units to be rented at below market rate for people with lower incomes. For a City in a housing crisis which states on its website that the area requires "24,000 units of affordable housing to meet the current need", this project seems like a no-brainer. But there was nearly an hour of testimony and discussion, mostly about why this project shouldn't be built. How can this be?
As you might imagine, most of the tantrums centered on parking, because the developer is proposing only 6 parking spaces for up to 104 apartments--with lease restrictions that would prohibit tenants from bringing vehicles.
While some people might not read their leases before signing them, it is fairly safe to say that anyone moving in to this proposed development would probably know that there isn't going to be much vehicle storage before they ever arrive, so they likely wouldn't be bringing a car. But the resident NIMBYs (and even public planners) seemed very resistant to understanding this.
The range of complaints raised were like a bingo card of NIMBY talking points (slightly paraphrased):
"We welcome/embrace development...but it has to be well planned and designed...this project is NOT..they're ignoring our ideas!" (2:11:50)
"We will oppose this monstrosity...homeowners will be left with the longevity and negative economic and social impacts" (2:12:15)
"There's no evidence anyone wants to live here" (2:13:30)
"Because the leases prohibit people from owning a car, they will decrease opportunities for cultural exposure, which will increase social injustice" (2:14:40)
"Over 400 neighbors signed a petition because we're concerned about height and parking" (2:16:16)
"This location is not practical, the only way is to design parking and let people own cars" (2:20:23)
"It's not fair to put car ownership restrictions in leases" (2:42:30)
"I want to know if it's legal to deny people housing just because they have a car" (2:42:50)
"I want things to be less dependent on cars but I think the market should push that" (2:48:53)
"I'm all for affordable housing, but is this going to burden the [existing] residents with on-street parking?" (3:07:24)
"What about guests...where will they park!?" (3:24:15)
"80% AMI is not that low a cap." (3:36:02)
Anyone who has ever attended a public hearing will know that these comments are pretty much the standard for just about every land use hearing anywhere in the US. Lots of speculation and worry about things that might happen or impacts that could materialize, but ultimately just distractions from the real question that no one is really asking: does Charlotte need more housing? If housing was a priority, these issues would be easily dealt with or simply brushed aside. But no one really cares that much, because apparently housing isn't about shelter as much as being a cultural symbol, state of mind, or wealth builder.
To be fair, there were members of the public and councilors who spoke in favor of this project, and they should be applauded. But perhaps the most disappointing thing part of all this is the pre-hearing staff analysis written by Charlotte's own planning staff, referred to at least once during testimony. The planners claimed: "The scale of the proposed building does not adequately provide a height transition toward the adjacent single family homes", and "...the size and scale of the building, as well as the lack of available parking, may provide land use incompatibilities and parking strain on the existing adjacent single-family homes." Charlotte needs 24,000-30,000 housing units today and they're worried about the height transition towards low density residential within 2 miles of downtown? And how exactly does an apartment create "parking strain" on existing single family homes--are apartment dwellers known for parking their cars inside other peoples' living rooms?
Of course what the planners are obliquely talking about here is the possibility that the currently-free, unmanaged on-street parking (which serves as homevoters' subsidized storage space) might become less available (and that might require them to actually enforce traffic laws in the street). But shame on them for further entrenching backwards narratives about parking and the supremacy of single family homes. Many planners believe themselves to be "doing work for good", yet the staff reports they write and the language they use do as much as anything else to reinforce the status quo.
Contrast Charlotte planners' recommendation in opposition with the pitiful Rezoning Petition Review in support by Charlotte's Housing & Neighborhood Services (HNS) in the same packet. It is interesting here that HNS acknowledges that it is the private market that builds housing, and it would be great if the private market would just build more at diverse price points--as this project is proposing--but they leave it at that. Is this the best they can do? Housing says the market should go ahead, while Planning say it might upset the sacred single family neighborhoods. Are we sure Charlotte is really in a "housing crisis"? Does the housing department have any idea what role the planners are playing in obstructing new units?
Another bizarre aspect of the staff materials is the revised engineer's analysis, which claims that an apartment building with 104 units (with car ownership prohibited by lease) is likely to "generate" 570 automobile trips per day. Now, I am always carrying the torch that the idea of trip generation is nonsense, and this claim falls within that absurdity. But this document is especially ridiculous. The tenants who signed agreements not to bring cars are not going to be making trips from their apartments, so where does the City of Charlotte imagine these trips are going to be coming from--the walls of the apartment itself? The City publishes this document, it becomes a "fact", the "fact" justifies the need for more parking and roads, and then people use these points to argue against the project for badly needed housing. All based on ITE junk science from the beginning.
If you can stomach it, the public hearing hearing is worth listening to, at least in part. At one point, the developer explains explicitly that "One of the things driving up the cost of housing so much is parking", and it is by eliminating parking from their design that they were able to offer 50% of the units to people with lower incomes for a period of 15 years. Let me emphasize that--a developer is offering to rent out half of their units at lower cost than what they could easily get on the market, because removing vehicle storage has made the project that much more financially stable. At around 2 hours and 27 minutes into the hearing, the developer also explains that if they were required to add a parking garage underneath the building it would cost around $30,000 per space, adding about $250 in rent to each unit--a perfect example of how vehicle storage makes housing more expensive. Offering more attainable housing, less auto-dependency, and replacing what looks essentially like a junkyard, this project seems to be just what Charlotte needs. But, listening to the comments it seems that aesthetic concerns and fear of lost value are really what is most important. A final note about this hearing: it provides some useful observations on how NIMBY behavior is not limited to one race or ethnicity. Have most NIMBYs traditionally been white, and has most zoning been traditionally based in racism? Absolutely. But the biggest conflicts in housing and development are still as much about fundamental differences in class as the different colors of skin. It's generally homeowners--of any background-- looking to maximize their asset versus newcomers/renters looking for a place to live. And that is pretty much what plays out during this rezone hearing.
Whether people like it or not, our system depends on the private market-- what your local homevoter might call "gReEdy DeVEloPERS"---to produce the majority of its housing. This has both positives and negatives, but for the time being, very few alternatives. So, if we want housing now, allowing developers to build it is probably the fastest/cheapest way to get there.
Every day, developers walk into planning offices across the country with ideas to build housing, and most ideas are ultimately rejected outright, denied over time, or whittled down to fewer units with more parking. Some of these denials/changes are done for good reason, but in my experience reviewing applications, most are not. The only way to resolve this is by making sure that councilors, commissioners, and board members keep the question of housing unit need at the center of every public discussion. When people complain about height or shadows--well, is their discomfort with a 5 story building more important than the possibility of adding 100 housing units to the community? If it is, that's fine. If not, then let's encourage them to stop whining about it. Our housing issues are not about a lack of money or lack of land, they are about a lack of political will to assert that housing is a priority.
yorro is a planner working in municipal housing.