Many suburbs’ restrictive zoning has created an artificial shortage of the kinds of multifamily development sites needed to fix the housing crisis.

The Biden Administration has proposed spending a stunning $213 billion to tackle our nation’s growing affordable housing crisis. 

Like Biden’s other big domestic policy proposals, it is positively Rooseveltian in ambition and scope. 

In my book, our new president gets credit for proposing the most comprehensive fix to our nation’s troubled housing market since at least the Great Society, if not the New Deal. 

Here’s the rub, though: We can’t spend our way out of our nation’s affordable housing crisis. 

While money is a crucial ingredient, we also need to change the rules of the development game, which artificially limit where new housing can be built, regardless of whether we are talking about affordable apartments or middle-class homes. 

For at the root of the problem is not just a lack of cash with which to build, but available sites, and not just in our major cities, but in the suburbs as well.  

Failure of the Imagination 

With a few exceptions, we are not talking about a land shortage here, even in densely populated Eastern Massachusetts. 

At just under 90 square miles, Boston is one of the smallest major cities in terms of land mass.  Yet it has been the main engine of new housing production for years now, putting to shame the suburbs, which control almost all the land inside the Interstate 495 beltway. 

The suburbs of Greater Boston have been laggards, fighting proposals for new market-rate and affordable apartments tooth and nail. 

It’s not a land shortage, but a failure of the imagination. 

There are plenty of redevelopment opportunities in suburbs and small towns across the state, empty offices and struggling shopping plazas that would make great places for multifamily housing. 

Yet zoning laws – and NIMBY opposition to new housing – make even what should be slam dunks like these into uphill battles. 

Look no further than the campaign waged back by Cabot Cabot & Forbes a few years to convert part of an office park along Route 128 in Newton into a mixeduse development with hundreds of apartments. 

The artificial limits local communities have placed on what can get built, where has created a manmade shortage of development sites. That, in turn, has driven up the cost of land acquisition, typically one of the biggest budget items on any project. 

Nor is the Boston area unique, with the contrast between more housingfriendly cities pitted against suburbs that have zoned out all but large and super expensive single-family homes replicated in metro areas across the country. 

All Carrot, NStick 

To its credit, the Biden Administration wants to tie that $213 billion to zoning reforms at the local level in a bid to spur the construction or rehabilitation of half a million homes in working- and middle-class neighborhoods. 

Under Biden’s plan, state and local governments would compete for a share of the housing money by making changes to zoning and other rules to limit new construction. 

But the plan contains a fatal flaw, relying on the equivalent of sweet talk, with no stick, to encourage suburbs and towns to change their ways and end decades of discrimination and often fierce opposition to more modestly priced homes, apartments and condominiums. 

Massachusetts has tried a similar approach with its 40R program aimed at promoting development near commuter rail and subway stations with modest financial incentives for local communities.  

While it has produced some badly needed housing, it has been nowhere near the scale and volume needed to put a real dent in demand – and ultimately rents and prices. 

Another similar state program, aimed at spurring the construction of starter homes, has failed to yield a single project. 

Stronger Medicine Needed 

The barriers suburbs across the country have erected against new housing go back decades now, and often intertwined with efforts to keep out racial minorities. 

Stronger medicine is needed, such as threatening to withhold federal transportation dollars from communities that won’t play ball, as some housing advocates have suggested. 

Sure, there may be some temporary relief for nonprofit affordable housing developers, who suddenly find themselves with more capital to compete for potential housing sites with private-sector competitors. 

Scott Van Voorhis

But in the end, all that extra cash sloshing around will fuel bidding wars for an artificially limited number of urban sites. 

That will result in costlier projects and far fewer units than had been hoped for, while raising the cost of development across the board. 

Unless the Biden Administration couples that $213 billion with a much a much stronger attempt to break down local housing barriers, the result will be the squandering of a once-in-a-generation opportunity. 

And that would be truly tragic. 

Scott Van Voorhis is Banker & Tradesman’s columnist; opinions expressed are his own. He may be reached at sbvanvoorhis@hotmail.com.   

Biden Needs to Put the Screws to the Suburbs

by Scott Van Voorhis time to read: 3 min
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