Henry Grabar: Oregon Is Adopting the Most Important Housing Reform in America (Slate)
Legalizing apartments is not a panacea. But it is a precursor to other solutions. If there are no apartments, there are no homeless shelters, no student housing, no senior housing, and no Section 8. That’s why California’s zoning override bill, the More HOMES Act, was endorsed by Habitat for Humanity and the Non-Profit Housing Association of Northern California, a coalition of 750 affordable-housing groups. More apartments would allow people to live closer to jobs, schools, and amenities, making transit more viable and reducing commute distances, which is good for the environment. Shorter, more-reliable commutes are also associated with greater economic mobility.
Most importantly, by upzoning entire cities and states at a time, these efforts could help make sure that it isn’t only low-income neighborhoods of color—the places vulnerable to gentrification and displacement—that become hot spots for development in cities that need more housing. Whiter, richer neighborhoods that have aggressively opposed any attempts to build more housing will finally have to bear their share of the supply.
In other words, that the burden of development is often borne by centrally located, formerly redlined communities of color is a product of the current system, in which social capital and political connections determine who gets to keep their neighborhood the same. Black, brown, and poor neighborhoods have emerged as the weakest links against enormous pent-up demand for housing, and planners (“a caretaker profession—reactive rather than proactive,” as the planner Thomas Campanella caustically put it) go with the flow.
“It’s almost certainly true that more development happens in lower-income or minority communities because you can’t build any new housing—and certainly not apartments—in wealthy, white communities,” says Jenny Schuetz, a housing expert at the Brookings Institute. “Whether the rezoning changes that depends on how much opposition is straightforward zoning, and how much is the process of development.” In other words, city- and statewide rezoning might reverse the status quo, if governments succeed in stripping wealthy white neighborhoods of their powerful place in the local control system. But governments need to make sure the new rules don’t replicate the power imbalance that permeates development permitting now.