By. Neil Williamson, President
In recent months, our region has been highly engaged in the Housing Needs Assessment process. While such an assessment is a laudable first step, I fear we have not gone far enough in discussing the root causes of the housing need. Much like a doctor, we must determine the underlying disease to be remedied rather than simply treating its symptoms.
In this Sunday’s Washington Post, Andrew Clark penned an opinion piece entitled Local governments stand in the way of new housing. Clark, a friend, should know as he serves as the Vice President of Government Affairs at the Home Builders Association of Virginia (HBAV).
Clark and I agree on many points, especially considering the regulatory review process that, by design, stymies new housing production:
Around the state, antiquated zoning codes and land-use restrictions, off-street parking requirements, unnecessarily slow permitting processes and zoning ordinances that mandate larger-lot developments while stifling consideration of developments with a denser mixture of uses are restricting housing supply by making land significantly more costly to develop and making it near impossible to build housing stock that is attainable for individuals and families across the income spectrum…
…the reality is that serious attempts to address our full-blown housing crisis should involve a serious reexamination of our own backyards and the hyperlocal issues of land use and zoning that are constraining our housing supply.
Much of Clark’s piece focuses on the Northern Virginia market, with a majority of land zoned for low density single use development.
Think it is only a NoVa problem?
Charlottesville Planning Commissioners Rory Stolzenberg The Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission created the following graphic based on the City’s zoned current land uses [corrected 11:20 6.11.2019-nw]:
The Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission cited single family zoning as an impediment to affordable housing in their Regional Housing Assessment.
So, is local government to blame for this situation?
Perhaps, but only as much as the citizens (read VOTERS) have demanded such protections. As Clark references in his WaPo editorial:
The rise in a vocal minority’s outright hostility to any new development in some localities has created a politicized environment in which we, the broader community, strive to create or reinvigorate our neighborhoods….
… Our collective inability — and sometimes unwillingness — to remove these local impediments to housing has the obvious effect of squeezing out working- and middle-class families, driving up transportation costs as homes get pushed farther from core job centers, straining local government infrastructure, exacerbating income inequality and limiting our ability to create sustainable communities with long-term economic upward mobility for all residents.
The real villain in our housing shortage melodrama is the incredible forces of NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard). These forces have elected representatives that enacted zoning code that protects the status quo and prevents the introduction of increased density under the guise of protecting the fabric of the neighborhood.
One need only look to C-ville Weekly’s January 23rd Article Zoned out: How Neighborhood Associations and Zoning Regulations have shaped our city to hear local voices sounding the call of NIMBYism:
Brian Becker, president of the Fry’s Spring Neighborhood Association, says current association members care about affordable housing and welcome diversity (he points out that the neighborhood is zoned for Jackson-Via and Johnson elementary schools, both of which are majority black). But the association previously sought to downzone part of the neighborhood, out of concern about “rent-seeking property owners who don’t maintain their property.”
“I don’t think the NA is against density per se,” Becker said in an email. “What we are concerned with is the impacts of density (i.e. traffic, parking, noise, and litter.)”
And as Ned Michie, president of the Greenbrier Neighborhood Association, told Charlottesville Tomorrow: “I, and probably most people, very much like the idea of being able to walk or bike to a coffee shop, a barber shop, or a little grocery store. Yet, no doubt most people will be less happy when the reality comes in the form of a specific proposal that is deemed ‘too near’ one’s own house.” (Emphasis added – NW)
Others, such as the Advocates for A Sustainable Albemarle Population (ASAP) lead the charge in opposition to new housing based on their view that residential development (and subsequent population growth) is the cause of Climate Change. From their Climate Action Plan statement earlier this year:
Given that population growth has been and remains a root driver of climate change, we propose that ongoing assessments of local greenhouse gas emissions identify effects of community population size changes on community emissions. Also, we also urge ongoing analyses of impacts of residential developments in the rural areas on our landscape’s ability to sequester carbon.
There are however bright spots.
We have been encouraged by open, public discussions of wide spread proactive density increases (moving R-1 to R-3 for example). We do not believe such proactive rezoning would make existing single family homes illegal, rather it would permit, but not require, duplexes and triplexes within existing single family residential.
It remains an open question if the market is interested in such increased density. We know of many residential developments approved over the last decade that were permitted to for higher density than were constructed. The rationale for this lower density often ties back to the aforementioned parking and environmental concerns but the market conditions are also in play.
Now there are those that will focus their energy on the potential increase in services such density would create. We would point to the Comprehensive Plan’s that by state code are required to show how (and where) each locality plans to focus their growth.
The question now is not only will the local governments allow new residential growth but will citizens (AKA voters) let them?
Neil Williamson is the President of The Free Enterprise Forum, a privately funded public policy organization covering the City of Charlottesville as well as Albemarle, Greene, Fluvanna, Louisa and Nelson County.
Photo Credit: Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission,