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How to solve the nation's housing shortage


Home prices are up more than 30% over the past couple of years, which feels great if you own a home. But if you're trying to break into the housing market, it's not good at all. Supply and demand seem to drive this because not many houses are available. So what can cities and states do that would really address the problem? NPR's Chris Arnold reports on a study of what's going wrong.

CHRIS ARNOLD, BYLINE: Danielle and Colin Lloyd spent the past year trying to buy a house in Atlanta, which went about like you'd expect these days.

DANIELLE LLOYD: There's just nothing in this whole area - just nothing.

ARNOLD: They wanted a place with a yard and space for their three young kids.

COLIN LLOYD: The prices were just ridiculous. People were just bidding much higher than what the house was listed for.

D LLOYD: I only cried twice.

C LLOYD: (Laughter) She cried twice, but we only bid twice.


ARNOLD: Meanwhile, their landlord was about to raise their rent by $450 a month, which is also due to the same problem - not enough homes to rent or to buy.

MIKE KINGSELLA: We're seeing a shortage of housing under production in all corners of the U.S.

ARNOLD: Mike Kingsella has just come out with a new study about this. He's the head of a nonprofit called Up For Growth. It's a research group made up of affordable housing and industry groups.

KINGSELLA: America's fallen 3.8 million homes short of meeting housing needs, and that's both rental housing and ownership.

ARNOLD: There is some debate among economists over the exact numbers, but pretty much everybody agrees that we need a lot more housing. Part of the problem goes back to the last housing crash. After that, a lot of home builders went out of business, and we just didn't build enough for, like, a decade. So the study took a look at what's happening in 800 different cities and towns.

KINGSELLA: In Los Angeles, for instance, which is the most under-produced metro in the country, it's lacking 8.4%, nearly 400,000 homes missing across the region.

ARNOLD: That is, given the population and demand, there should be that many more units. It's not just LA, but in hundreds of big cities and small towns, there's a housing shortage. But Kingsella says this is a solvable problem.

KINGSELLA: It doesn't have to be this way is a key message coming out of this report.

ARNOLD: Maybe the biggest thing, he says, is states and towns desperately need to change their zoning rules. Back in Atlanta, Ernest Brown heads up the local chapter of a nonprofit called YIMBY Action.

ERNEST BROWN: The YIMBY movement, which stands for yes in my backyard, is kind of poking fun at the idea of a NIMBY, not in my backyard, which is, like, a sociological concept.

ARNOLD: Brown says in many places, we still have outdated zoning rules that allow for some big apartment buildings downtown, surrounded by single-family homes on big lots but nothing in between, like townhouses or smaller starter homes closer together that are more affordable. Brown hears people complaining all the time about not being able to afford a house. He tries to get them to go to zoning meetings and call their representatives.

BROWN: They actually want to hear from you, particularly at the local level. I mean, the thing that's so fun about this issue is, like, rather than yelling at sort of, like, essentially anonymous, you know, federal politicians, I, like, have the phone number and, like, regularly chat with my councilperson.

ARNOLD: As for Danielle and Collin Lloyd, they did what many Americans have done over the years - look much farther away to find a place that they can afford to buy. It's called drive 'til you qualify. And they just bought a place in Walnut Grove, Ga.

D LLOYD: I told somebody at church and she was like, oh, my goodness, you all moved to Egypt. Like, we're so far out.

ARNOLD: It's about an hour from where they used to live and work in Atlanta. They just moved in a couple of weeks ago. And they are feeling a little apprehensive about being an African American family, moving from the city into a tiny rural town that's nearly 90% white. There's a bit of a culture clash, too.

D LLOYD: Moving to country Georgia, where, like, there's an ammo shop down the street, that's like - it's, like, a constant in your face.

C LLOYD: Reminder.

ARNOLD: But they say the neighbors seem friendly, and there are other families with kids.

D LLOYD: I love the idea of, like, when the kids are a little older, saying, yeah, go play at your friend's house. I can see them, like, at the corner, you know? I'll watch you right over there. And then - I just - I love that.

ARNOLD: Chris Arnold, NPR News.

INSKEEP: How bad is the housing shortage where you live? Look it up at Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR correspondent Chris Arnold is based in Boston. His reports are heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazines Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition. He joined NPR in 1996 and was based in San Francisco before moving to Boston in 2001.