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Simple House Building / May 25, 2022

Some of the most sought-after cities in the U.S. face a growing affordability crunch. While San Francisco and New York are known for especially high housing costs, places such as Seattle, Boston and Washington are finding more people priced out.

It’s a long way from the days when cities were grappling with an exodus of people and their wealth; now they fear becoming too exclusive. A recent analysis by real-estate information company Zillow Group Inc. shows many homeowners spending at least a third of their income on mortgages in some cities, while renters in general spend an even bigger percentage of their income on housing.

“If you ask mayors across the country, their No. 1 problem is affordable housing, ” says Svenja Gudell, chief economist for Zillow.

With that in mind, here are strategies from economists, city planners and other urban experts on how to make housing more affordable in the decades ahead.

Rely on more than direct intervention

Cities have long leaned on policies that address affordability head on. Vouchers, rent control and requirements for builders to supply affordable units are all tools that continue to be used.

But planners and academics warn that such approaches have their limits. Housing-assistance programs often help the neediest, while leaving a large swath of the population shut out. And requirements that builders set aside affordable units or pay into a fund to build such units come with their own challenges, notably that growth in affordable housing comes to rely on a much larger increase in market-rate housing.

So, while such programs help, they don’t provide a huge bang for the buck, says Alan Mallach, a senior fellow at the Center for Community Progress. The number of affordable units they produce “is incredibly sensitive to how strong the market is, ” he says.

Nothing beats supply

Adding housing units in cities is crucial to confronting rising costs, housing experts say. New home construction isn’t keeping pace with population growth and people’s preferences, particularly in the largest coastal cities.

“The thing that is going to promote affordability is a lot of building” targeted for a mass market, says Edward Glaeser, a Harvard professor of economics. Last year, the U.S. added less than a million housing units, trailing the average for the past three decades by nearly 400, 000.

Affordability isn’t just a matter of adding to that total, however. It depends on the right kind of housing being built. “We are in the process of kind of a sea change in housing preferences, ” says Karen Chapple, a professor of planning at the University of California, Berkeley.

Demand is growing for units in more-urban, walkable neighborhoods that are close to jobs and amenities.

Variety, variety, variety

Planners lament the missing middle of the housing market—the options between single-family homes and high-rise developments. Townhouses, duplexes and courtyard apartments all can provide more-affordable options, avoiding costs that come with building higher.

The challenge here often is opposition from existing homeowners. Last year, a government task force in Seattle released a comprehensive plan for housing affordability that faced stiff opposition from the public because it called for greater density in existing neighborhoods. Elected officials backed away from that aspect of the plan.

Peter Orser, director of the Runstad Center for Real Estate Studies at the University of Washington, says residents came to envision high-rises towering over their neighborhoods, rather than new multifamily units nestled across Seattle’s 10, 000 city blocks.

“If you could get different ways that were respectful of the architecture, culture and lifestyle of the neighborhoods, you could be really successful, ” Mr. Orser says.

Look beyond the coasts

As coastal cities such as Boston and Seattle struggle with affordability, they can learn from peers such as Houston and Phoenix that boast a housing stock accessible to a range of incomes.

“You get young people in their early 30s buying houses” in those noncoastal cities, says Joel Kotkin, presidential fellow in urban futures at Chapman University in California. “They aren’t doing that in the Bay Area unless they’re extremely wealthy.”

Geography plays a role in many cases. Cities in the Southwest, for instance, have a seemingly endless supply of flat land, making development easier and less costly. But regulations play a big role, too. And those can be changed.

Coastal cities should re-examine their process for granting—or denying—permission to build and how it drives up the cost of building, says Carol Galante, a former Federal Housing Administration commissioner who’s now a professor at the University of California, Berkeley.

She advocates an approach that allows developers to build if they meet a community’s clear set of requirements, instead of a discretionary process filled with uncertainty and multiple reviews. “Set the expectations sooner rather than later, and then turn the development community loose, ” Ms. Galante says. “What we have today in many places is even when you have zoning, nothing is set.”

Schools and technology

Mr. Kotkin says cities should view improving their schools as an affordable-housing strategy. If the quality of individual schools becomes more equal across a city, he says, it won’t see prices continue to rise in some neighborhoods while stagnating in others—at least not to the extremes of recent years.

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