Yes in My Back Yard

By: Victor Normand

One sure way to lower the cost of housing for first time buyers and increase the supply of smaller homes for those who want smaller homes, including downsizers, is to suspend all zoning bylaws, along with building codes, energy codes, historic preservation restrictions and the like. That’s never going to happen, nor should it, but it’s easy to imagine what would happen if all you needed to do was start building on whatever piece of land was handy. Look around, there seems to be lots of places to build and without needing to get permits of any kind, we could start solving our housing shortages right away.

A movement in that direction exists. As reported recently by the PBS Newshour, an organization in the San Francisco Bay area that calls itself “Yes in MY Back Yard” (YIMBY) is advocating for government action to increase the supply of housing. The YIMBY folks are critical of both the political left and right for their respective positions on housing policy. Affordable housing advocates use the lengthy public approval process to slow and often kill new urban housing developments in their battle against gentrification. And property rights advocates on the political right, rely on restrictive zoning to keep out any housing development in suburban areas.

The YIMBY folks have taken the position that everyone should support the development of more housing at all levels, including luxury housing. And from an economic perspective, they would be correct. Increasing the supply of housing beyond demand will cause prices to fall. If the supply of larger more expensive homes exceeds demand, prices will fall enabling more buyers or renters from lower price points into that market, and so on, eventually effecting all buyers or renters.

But that is not the main focus of the movement. Their first point is that over-regulation has an effect on housing development at all levels; it adds cost and increases approval times which also is a cost. A careful review of all building and health and safety codes with a view toward eliminating antiquated sections or codes that have minimal benefit to society, will help to speed up the development process. Building codes address a broad spectrum of issues affecting safety and comfort, but they do not focus on creating an efficient system for housing development.

And there are often conflicting social goals that effect housing supply. Take the Community Preservation Act, which allows communities in Massachusetts to dedicate tax revenue to purchase land for conservation and also allows funding for affordable housing. The micro economic effect of these two undertakings is clearly beneficial to the community, but from a macro-economic perspective, every acre of land that is placed in conservation increases the price of every acre of land not in conservation. As the old saw goes, God is not making any more land.

The second area of concern is zoning. Unlike building codes which come under the jurisdiction of states, including Massachusetts, zoning is a local matter. Super local zoning, as it is referred to in the Newshour story, makes it hard to adapt to changing conditions. The link between where you live and where you work was weakened or in some cases, broken a long time ago. The imperative for one town to change zoning to allow for smaller homes and denser neighborhoods vanishes when the attitude is “not in my backyard”. Linking local aid to cities and towns based on regional economic growth and the demand for more housing might be an answer.

As the economy grows and populations increase, a smart look at all aspects of housing development needs to happen. At some point in all our lives we are all affected by the lack of choice in the available housing stock. Yes in My Back Yard should be a starting point for all of us as we work to solve our housing issues.