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Bipartisan housing policy efforts are gaining traction, but challenges remain

A profile in The New York Times highlights how lawmakers across the country are coming together to address housing issues, despite fundamental disagreements on hot-button issues

As the nation progresses further into a hotly contested election cycle, President Joe Biden and the White House have continued to address housing supply and pricing policy priorities that were highlighted during the State of the Union address earlier this month.

While the arms of the federal government aim to address certain housing policy challenges, different localities across the country are also working to address them in their own backyards.

An article published this week in The New York Times highlights some of these efforts in different pockets of the country, showing that even lawmakers who have broad fundamental disagreements on hot-button political issues are, in some cases, trying to work together to address the nation’s housing challenges.

ADUs, lot sizes, zoning rules

Experts agree that while federal intervention can have an impact, the most productive action on housing issues must come from lawmakers at the city, county and state levels. An increasingly popular option for adding more housing is accessory dwelling units (ADUs), but restrictive land development policies sometimes prevent ADUs from becoming the norm.

Even in states that may have comparatively lower home values than some of the hotter markets across the country, higher home prices are eating into the budgets of individuals and families to the point where lawmakers recognize a need for action. ADUs are one possible solution.

“Generally, Republican-led states have been more affordable than Democratic-led ones,” the Times explained. “They tend to have fewer construction and environmental rules, which allows the housing supply to expand faster. But as rent and home prices climb beyond middle-income budgets in more places, states are racing to add housing.”

The legislative answer can often be the removal of “permitting and design barriers so new construction can be approved faster,” which at the state level could include altering “zoning rules to allow a greater diversity of units in more neighborhoods,” the article stated.

ADUs are one option, but another is to decrease lot sizes and change zoning rules, something that is only possible for lawmakers below the federal level to accomplish. Some states, including Washington, have pursued such policies with a degree of bipartisan support.

Bipartisan recognition

The White House has repeatedly said that housing issues should not be defined along partisan lines. In certain states, lawmakers with very different ideologies have demonstrated recognition of that idea.

“Already, Democrats and Republicans in Montana and Arizona have united for housing legislation,” the Times explained. “A similar coalition has taken shape in other states, including Texas, Minnesota and North Carolina. Even in California and Oregon, whose governments are both dominated by Democrats, Republican votes have helped pass housing bills.”

State Rep. Cody Vasut of Texas, a Republican whom the Times describes as wanting to “drastically restrict abortion,” also wants to open up the state’s zoning laws and has found common ground with Democrats on the issue.

“Some issues become a horseshoe,” he told the outlet. “We have different views of government, but sometimes we arrive at the same conclusion.”

But some coalitions are not as successful, as most recently evidenced by the failure of some united Democrats and Republicans in Arizona to pass a bill aimed at creation of more starter homes. Gov. Katie Hobbs, a Democrat, surprised lawmakers and local leaders by vetoing the measure, citing “undetermined outcomes” and opposition sent to her office by the U.S. Department of Defense.

A path forward

Economists place much of the blame on the current housing shortages on local governments, the Times said.

“City councils hold most of the power over where and what types of housing get built, but they are beholden to homeowners who often pack meetings to complain that new developments would destroy nature and snarl traffic,” the article stated in describing the phenomenon known as “NIMBYism.”

In 2021, National Housing Conference chairman and CEO David Dworkin told HousingWire that the phenomenon has contributed to a lack of action at the local level, despite some regions receiving federal funding to address housing shortages.

At the time, Dworkin said that local governments are given pots of money by Congress to build affordable housing projects, only to face resistance from NIMBYs who claim the homes will affect their quality of life.

Getting past this attitude has often relied on stripping cities of the power to shut down such policy changes in both Democratic- and Republican-led states, the Times explained.

“State legislatures are close enough to voters to share their concerns about rising housing costs — but far enough that they don’t have to answer for every new local development,” the Times stated. “They are the Goldilocks level of government for housing reform.”

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