The housing shortage, the presidential campaign and the NIMBYs

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Single family homes. Photo credit: Pixaby (CC BY 2.0)

Residential zoning was approved by the US Supreme Court in 1926, but it’s been considered a local issue ever since. Now, the nationwide housing shortage has made it a national issue. Candidates in the 2020 presidential campaign are questioning local zoning in neighborhoods, where single-family homes have been protected by law as well as tradition.

Emily Badger of the New York Times says, “We seldom hear serious conversations about housing in presidential elections. But all of that is starting to change because pressures are rising in lots of different cities. The housing crisis is increasingly touching the middle class… young professionals who have pretty good jobs feel like they ought to be able to afford an apartment.”

But, as prices rise, those potential voters are out of luck. Local zoning has shut down development, “so the next generation can’t buy a house at all,” says Jenny Shuetz of the Brookings Institution. “They can’t afford a place to live in order for other people to protect their investments.”

For the first time, presidential candidates are proposing incentives for local governments to open up single-family neighborhoods where apartment buildings are now banned. But, they’re likely to find it’s not nice to fool with single-family housing.

“People who live in single family neighborhoods don’t want to see a six story apartment building next door.” That’s according to Joel Kotkin, with Chapman University in California and the Center for Opportunity Urbanism in Texas. He thinks, “They have legitimate reasons, particularly if they have kids. You spent your money, you made this choice. Somebody saying, ‘no.’ That doesn’t work any more.”

Home ownership involves other issues, like residential segregation and suburban sprawl as a contributor to climate change. For the moment, it’s under the radar, but it has the potential to make for explosive controversy as the campaign goes on.




Warren Olney


Andrea Brody, Jon Reed