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There's a push to change zoning laws to create more affordable housing

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

A severe housing shortage in the U.S. means many people can't afford to buy homes in their communities. To help, some cities and states are taking a controversial step, changing decades-old laws that mandated only single-family homes be built in some neighborhoods. NPR's Jennifer Ludden is here to tell us more. Hey, Jennifer.

JENNIFER LUDDEN, BYLINE: Hi.

SHAPIRO: What kinds of building projects would these new laws allow?

LUDDEN: So we're talking duplexes, townhomes, small apartment buildings, what supporters call the missing middle - and these are buildings that had been banned for generations, right? And they were banned, in part, to keep out poor families, Black families, other families of color. So, you know, racial equity is also a very big goal in these changes. The idea is to create places that more people can afford to live. And then, there's also just this serious demographic mismatch. I mean, we have had most residential land in many cities devoted to houses that are getting bigger and bigger. And the average American household has been shrinking - today, nearly two-thirds, or only one or two people.

SHAPIRO: But I can imagine homeowners pushing back, saying, oh, it'll change the - I don't know - appearance of the neighborhood. It'll limit parking - whatever other NIMBY...

LUDDEN: Absolutely.

SHAPIRO: ...Not in my backyard - complaints you might hear.

LUDDEN: Totally, totally. These are not easy to pass, which is why it's remarkable that they have passed so far in three states - Oregon, California and Maine - a handful of cities, and they are debating this in many, many, many more places. I thought we could get a sense of the debate that is playing out. Margaret Barthel of member station WAMU has been following a zoning proposal in Arlington, Va., which is just near Washington, D.C.

SHAPIRO: Let's listen.

MARGARET BARTHEL, BYLINE: On a Saturday last month, the Arlington County Board strapped in for 5 hours of public comment on its missing middle plan, which would open up single-family neighborhoods to multifamily buildings. Here's residents Michael Lynch and Andrew Wells Deng.

MICHAEL LYNCH: Our street can't handle that. The neighborhood can't handle that. The school system can't handle that, and the city infrastructure can't handle that.

ANDREW WELLS DENG: But the alternative to missing middle, as I see it, is a county that's divided between mega homes on one side and high-rises on the other.

BARTHEL: Many current homeowners oppose the proposal. They'd prefer apartment buildings to stay in dense commercial corridors, not on their leafy green streets. But supporters of the measure say it could open up badly needed options for residents like Tara Siegel, who's 35 and currently rents a two-bedroom apartment with her partner. They'd really like more space, but they already know that houses run close to a million dollars in Arlington. Even condos are too pricey.

TARA SIEGEL: We saw a lot of homes, but when we brought it back down to what we could afford, what our price range was, suddenly all the homes disappeared.

BARTHEL: That was surprising news for a couple who together make above the median household income in Arlington, which is more than $120,000.

SIEGEL: It was sad for me, and it made me feel just discouraged, also, kind of for our community.

BARTHEL: Board member Katie Cristol supports the missing middle plan. She points out that it would reverse decades of zoning rules that priced out families of color. And she worries about the growing gap between multimillion-dollar, single-family homes and subsidized affordable housing and the people like Siegel, who are falling through it.

KATIE CRISTOL: We risk losing the future of our, you know, young- to mid-career professionals who want to make Arlington home permanently.

BARTHEL: And that's a sizable number of people, Cristol says. Arlington is majority renter, and its largest age demographic is 25 to 34. Opponents of the plan fear that added density will create parking nightmares and change the character of their neighborhoods. Julie Lee is the Civic Association president in her neighborhood.

JULIE LEE: We don't have the space to incorporate a city or urbanized living within this small village of a community that we have.

BARTHEL: And Lee says the county's own analysis shows that missing middle homes would still be too expensive for many, at least while they're brand new. Siegel knows that well, but still supports the proposal. For now, she and her partner have put their home search in Arlington on pause, and they're questioning if they want to buy a home at all. For NPR News, I'm Margaret Barthel in Arlington, Va.

SHAPIRO: And NPR's Jennifer Ludden is still here with us. Jennifer, we just heard about one place where this is being debated, but you said these policies have already passed in California, Oregon and Maine. So how's it going there?

LUDDEN: It is going pretty slowly. Not a ton of new housing has come out of these laws. To find out why, I talked with David Garcia. He works in housing policy at UC Berkeley. He spoke with developers in seven states about, like, what's going on, and he got a real reality check.

DAVID GARCIA: I was surprised that there was not more enthusiasm around building these smaller-scale housing types amongst the developers that we interviewed. There is a belief that the zoning is the key to unlocking all of these new housing units, and I think maybe it's more like the first step.

LUDDEN: So for example, if you now can, say, build a four-unit building, but you have to do it in the exact same space you would've put, say, a 2,000-square-foot house, it is not going to work. That is too cramped. So Garcia says cities need to make other changes, like allowing more square feet, a smaller setback from the street. You know, if you eliminate parking requirements, you don't have to have a driveway, and that gives you more space. Also, you know, land and construction right now is so expensive - think California - developers told him really the larger units, like six to eight or more, are much more financially viable for them.

SHAPIRO: And do those units still get the pushback from the local neighbors even after the zoning laws have changed?

LUDDEN: Actually, no. This is good for developers. It turns out these zoning laws let them avoid that mostly. Eli Spevak is with a company called Orange Splot in Portland, Ore. He's got two townhomes underway there and a couple of six-unit buildings, and he says it is hugely helpful they will not be subject to appeal.

ELI SPEVAK: The appeal provides unpredictability and risk for a builder. And when you're talking about small builders, they can't take that risk. If you're doing one of the projects I described, you can check the boxes. And if you check all the boxes - and it's a long list - then you're guaranteed to go to a building permit.

SHAPIRO: And then, big question, how affordable is this new housing?

LUDDEN: Well, we are mostly talking market rate, and we know right now that is not really affordable for very many people in this country. Still, many of them will be less than a single-family home in the same neighborhood, sometimes a lot less. But the bottom line is, you know, housing experts tell us the reason everything is so very expensive is largely because of this incredible massive shortage of housing, millions of units short. And the only way to change it is to just keep building more and more for years to come.

SHAPIRO: Supply and demand. NPR's Jennifer Ludden, thank you.

LUDDEN: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jennifer Ludden helps edit energy and environment stories for NPR's National Desk, working with NPR staffers and a team of public radio reporters across the country. They track the shift to clean energy, state and federal policy moves, and how people and communities are coping with the mounting impacts of climate change.