It has been 10 years since America last experienced a major recession. Wages are up, people are working and the unemployment rate is way down, yet still folks across the country can’t find a decent place to live. And this is not just an issue in fast-growing, expensive cities like San Francisco or New York. It is also happening right here in Greensboro.
A report I wrote for the Community Foundation of Greater Greensboro in 2016 found that more than a third of all housing units in Greensboro were considered cost-burdened — meaning families were spending more than 30% of their income on housing. I also found that the number of unaffordable housing units in Greensboro was large and growing.
Since then, the city won approval of a $25 million affordable-housing bond designed, in part, to provide grants and loans to build more affordable-housing units in the community. Nearly 70% of the city’s voters approved the bond, illustrating the depth of support for such action.
A few weeks ago, the city’s first apartment complex partially financed by the Greensboro housing bond — the 60-unit Ryan Ridge Apartments — opened on Rehobeth Church Road in south Greensboro. The complex offers rentals priced well below the city average. The development has proven so popular that it is already sold out and has a waiting list that is already at 500 people, according to the developer.
Although Ryan Ridge is a wonderful success story, it is unlikely to move the needle to any great extent. For the past several years, the number of cost-burdened housing units in Greensboro has consistently been well over 40,000, illustrating the magnitude of the problem facing our community.
It’s time to do something much bigger and much bolder. The fundamental problem all across urban America is that not enough new housing units are being built to keep up with demand.
If demand outstrips supply the inevitable end result is escalating house prices. That said, it is illegal to build anything but detached single-family houses on about 75% of all residentially zoned land in many American cities. In some cities, the figure is even higher, including several Sunbelt cities like Charlotte, where 84% of all residential land is zoned for detached single-family housing.
Single-family zoning has essentially driven housing prices up by government fiat by severely constricting the amount of land available for more affordable, denser, multifamily housing solutions. It is time to abolish, or at least substantively amend, single-family zoning to help communities more effectively remedy the affordable housing crisis.
Of course, for many, owning a single-family home surrounded by a large yard lies at the heart of the American Dream. But that dream is becoming increasingly elusive for large swaths of the population as house prices sky-rocket. Some may consider ending single-family zoning a fool’s errand, but several communities across America are now embracing such an approach.
Desperate to build more houses, the Minneapolis City Council last year did something that was both groundbreaking and historic. In a 12-1 vote, it completely eliminated single-family zoning citywide while allowing duplexes and triplexes to be built anywhere in the city.
More recently, the Oregon Legislature followed Minneapolis’ lead, passing an unprecedented statewide ban on single-family zoning for all cities with a population of at least 10,000 residents.
In Minneapolis, the call to abolish single-family zoning germinated in an unusual place. Older, predominantly white seniors and the AARP backed a plan to allow “Accessory Dwelling Units,” or ADUs — familiarly known as “granny flats” — in all communities zoned as single-family. As the ADUs were built with limited opposition, it became easier for the Minneapolis City Council to move forward to the next step of allowing duplexes and triplexes in previously single-family zones.
AARP and some seniors also strongly supported subdividing single-family homes into multiple units as a way to allow elderly residents to age in place while bringing in extra income from tenants. In a key concessionary move, the Minneapolis City Council ensured that the general requirements about height and yard space remained unchanged in previously single-family zones to ensure that large-scale multi-family residential development projects were still prohibited.
The emergence of the national YIMBY (Yes In My Backyard) movement has accelerated the pace of change in such places as Seattle; Austin, Texas; and Montgomery County, Md. Those cities have followed suit and dramatically relaxed their single-family zoning regulations to allow more affordable, higher-density housing units to be built.
Even so, it is unlikely that this will be a major point of discussion here in Greensboro as we move through the process of updating our comprehensive land use plan. Greensboro is a much more conservative city that is less likely to go out on a limb regarding major zoning reform.
By contrast, Forbes magazine recently rated Minneapolis the sixth most liberal city in the United States. Of the 13 members on the Minneapolis City Council, the only non-Democratic member was from the Green Party.
But remember, some research suggests that if just 5% of the largest single-family lots in Minneapolis converted to more affordable triplexes, that would create about 6,200 new units of housing. That is the sort of change capable of really moving the needle on the affordable housing crisis.
As we look to make Greensboro a more sustainable, resilient and inclusive community, we need to keep our eyes open to the possibilities. Today, single-family zoning is ubiquitous and “practically gospel in America” according to The New York Times. But tomorrow, change could be rapid as the seemingly invincible walls that single-family zoning has erected begin to crumble.