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Bipartisan Hope for Affordable Housing Emerges in the West

Inadequate housing stock is causing problems across the country. Local zoning is part of the problem. State-level reforms in two western states may point to the answer.

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New housing stock under construction in Olympia, Wash. (Paul Taylor/Governing)
The back and forth of legislative sessions netted forward movement for affordable housing in two states — one red, one blue. The two states — Montana and Washington — had the biggest successes in passing policies that are expected to ultimately help ameliorate America’s housing affordable crisis. Both demonstrate how the kitchen-table issue of housing affordability crosses partisan lines and can bring legislators and activists together to identify practical solutions in red states and blue states alike.

At issue: state-level reforms that reign in the excesses of local control.

Local zoning rules — like minimum lot size requirements and apartment bans that limit how much housing can be built and drive up the cost of that which is built — are the root cause of the affordability problem. The effects of these zoning policies are affecting more and more of the country each year, leaving an increasing number of people surrounded by localities that only allow expensive real estate.

Beyond California-Style Zoning

In both Montana and Washington, policymakers have set new limits on local authority to implement rules that limit housing construction. Local governments get their authority to regulate land use from their states, so local zoning rules that cause widespread affordability problems provide good reason for state policymakers to limit this authority.

In Montana, the Frontier Institute led a masterful messaging campaign that branded zoning rules requiring single-family, large-lot development as “California-style zoning.” This message — that building new housing in already built up areas helps conserve rural areas and avoids Los Angeles-style sprawl — helped unite Montanans across the political spectrum.

As for California, it’s true that localities there pioneered restrictions like single-family zoning, large lot-size requirements and parking mandates that have contributed to their own housing affordability challenges and an exodus of residents to less expensive states. Due to the severity of its housing shortage, California legislators have also become leaders on statewide land-use reforms and provided inspiration for some of the new policies in Montana and Washington.

The Montana Miracle

Both chambers of the Montana Legislature are held by Republican supermajorities. Nonetheless, Democratic support for legalizing housing construction played an important role there. In 2021, Rep. Danny Tenenbaum, a Democrat, introduced a bill that would have legalized two to four units on many of the state’s lots zoned exclusively for single-family housing. The bill failed, but it played an important role in starting the conversation.

This year, a similar bill legalizing duplexes across the state succeeded. Other components of the so-called “Montana Miracle” in housing reform include allowing homeowners to build accessory dwelling units (ADU), legalizing multifamily housing in areas zoned for office or retail development, and important streamlining reforms for permitting new housing of all types.

A similar package of bills passed in Washington, making it easier for homeowners to build accessory dwelling units, legalizing duplexes or fourplexes across much of the state, and eliminating subjective design review at the local level.

In both states, policymakers successfully drew on lessons learned from experiments in housing policy in other parts of the country. Decades of trial and error have shown which rules make it feasible for homeowners to build accessory dwelling units in significant numbers. Those lessons are now reflected in ADU policy in both Montana and Washington.

A Watershed in Washington Through Engagement

At a recent panel, Dave Andersen, the managing director of growth management planning in Washington, explained that the pro-housing coalition won where they’d previously failed by engaging more people and interest groups — ranging from AARP to business interests to labor to policy organizations such as the Sightline Institute — in the housing policy debate. “Making the coalition bigger, including the voices of the people who aren’t as housing secure and who have a different view of what it means to have a good community really started to change the conversation,” he said.

This broad base of support for legalizing more housing construction in Washington made it possible for reforms to pass with support from some Republican legislators that may have otherwise proven decisive. There are plenty of specific left- and right-coded reasons to support legalizing housing construction.

For some on the left, the environmental benefits of focusing development on already built out areas are paramount. New housing in existing neighborhoods allows people to live closer to job centers, allowing for fewer carbon emissions and the preservation of wilderness.

For many on the right, deregulatory reforms that allow the housing market to better serve more people are a natural fit with their support for property rights.

At the local level, however, these big-picture concerns can lose out to officials’ desire to preserve local control and constituents' desire to prevent changes in their neighborhoods. The benefits of new housing largely go to the people who will eventually live in it, and they may not even live in the locality when development is proposed. On the other hand, the costs of construction are highly local. Due to this mismatch, pro-housing politics generally stand a better chance at the state level, where policymakers answer to a bigger group of residents and concerns.

In contrast to the array of interest groups that support reforms to liberalize land use, organizations like the League of Cities, which represents local policymakers, are often the only institutional opposition to reform bills at the state level. But in states including Arizona, Colorado, New York and Texas — where local elected officials and their interest groups helped kill zoning pre-emption bills this year — that can be enough. They are a well-organized force that is particularly effective in state capitols, partly because so many state legislators were formerly local elected officials.

This reform comes at a cost — compromise. Ideologues don’t like that word. But when state-level changes bring more affordable housing to local communities, they help make lives better for the families who live there and provide a pressure release for those that follow. Yes, that’s compromise, but an honorable one.
Emily Hamilton is a Senior Research Fellow and Director of the Urbanity Project at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University. She can be reached on Twitter at @ebwhamilton.
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