What this country needs is an apartment construction boom.
As home prices have soared over the last decade or so, wages have failed to keep pace, putting the squeeze on an increasing share of working-class and even middle-class families. That makes apartments a crucial housing option for a growing number of families.
Yet developers say there’s not much they can do to alleviate the shortage of affordable housing for this group, with sky-high construction and land costs making it nearly impossible for them to build affordable rental housing that can still make a profit.
That’s because local governments have created an artificial shortage of land—by limiting density, resisting new development, and layering new construction projects with complicated regulations.
To build our way out of this housing crisis, cities will need to open up land for development and make it easier and faster for builders to construct new apartments. Here are a few things cities and counties should do to help developers create the new rental housing a growing number of middle-income Americans will need over the next decade:
- Revise zoning maps, building restrictions, and permitting and entitlement regulations as part of a master-planning process that takes a comprehensive look at the housing needs and economic growth prospects of the community, and sets new priorities based on 21st century needs.
- Re-zone sites to allow new, denser residential construction, or offer a “density bonus,” increasing the number of units allowed per acre, for those who include apartments affordable to low- and moderate-income residents in their projects.
- Offer a fast-track permitting process to developers who agree to include some housing affordable to low- or moderate-income families in their projects.
- Donate city-owned land to workforce housing developers or creatively find new ways to build on under-utilized land. Municipal parking lots next to train stations are prime targets for redevelopment, for example.
Developers, especially those who have faced a hostile audience at a town meeting, might be surprised to hear that many cities and even suburban villages are now embracing these strategies.
How can you get local officials who aren’t taking action to consider some of these ideas? Build alliances with nonprofits that serve low- and moderate-income residents and with business groups, such as the local chamber of commerce, concerned with employee recruitment and retention.
You can also point out that spending time and money encouraging workforce housing isn’t just a giveaway to developers: It’s an investment in the local economy.
In the Minneapolis-St. Paul metro area, a shortage of workforce housing in the late 1990s cost the local economy $128 million, not counting the costs to businesses in lost income, according to a 2001 study commissioned by the Family Housing Fund of Minnesota. That report estimated that spending $1.5 billion to subsidize workforce housing would generate a $12.2 billion gain to the regional economy over the following 15 years.
The lesson: A strong housing supply supports new jobs, which support new residents, who support new businesses, thus keeping local economies alive.
Chickie Grayson, CEO of Enterprise Homes, put it well: “The criteria should be: Can my children afford to live in the community they grew up in? And if the answer is no, then it’s important that people support housing that is there for the workforce.”