NIMTOO, NIMBY, LULU—The Alphabet Soup of Affordability

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By Jon Chandler

The most obvious driver of higher prices of anything—be it housing or hazelnuts—is almost always going to be a shortage of that commodity. Therefore, the equally obvious answer to any affordability issue is to generate more of whatever is scarce and let market forces drive the price down. In other words, if a city has a housing shortage, then all that city has to do is to get more housing built and the problem goes away. Easy peasy, right?

You bet. There are two places where new housing can go in a given city: at the city’s edge or into existing neighborhoods. Edge development has been the historic norm, but that has become more and more contentious given concerns about loss of farmland, cost of infrastructure, and availability of services, not to mention transportation and climate change. In addition, a lot of cities don’t have this option any more since they are mostly built out and butt up against other jurisdictions.

This leaves infill and redevelopment in existing neighborhoods as the major new supply option in many older communities. Yet municipalities that take this approach run smack into the problem that neighbors aren’t generally thrilled when vacant lots or existing houses are turned into new houses—even if the new ones look like all everything else in the neighborhood. They really don’t like it when new housing is built at even modestly higher densities and are especially resistant when an apartment or condo complex is proposed.

This dynamic of neighborhood opposition can lead to at least three undesirable outcomes:

  • one, new construction is subject to zoning disputes and appeals or other legal impediments, with the net effect that projects either don’t get built or get built with fewer units and at higher cost than would otherwise be warranted;
  • two, the community officials who are seen as supporting the increase in housing can find themselves unelected;
  • and three, the underlying affordability problem goes unsolved.

This is such a common phenomenon that it has created its own set of acronyms: NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard), LULU (Locally Unwanted Land Uses), NIMTOO (Not In My Term Of Office). What it hasn’t created is a set of solutions.

In Oregon and other states, one of the solutions being explored is to adopt state laws that require cities to allow more and higher density housing and prevent neighbors from impeding development. For example, Oregon now has laws on its books that:

  • Require housing development to be approved in 120 days or less, with an even faster track for development proposals that achieve 80percent of the base zone density;
  • Require cities to allow Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs) and duplexes in all single-family residential zones;
  • Prohibit citywide votes on annexations;
  • Require all cities to adopt and obtain state approval of their local comprehensive land use plans, including a housing component; and
  • Provide a separate tribunal to hear land use cases, with a short time frame.

There will also be proposals in the next legislative session that will require allowing triplex and quadplex development in all residential zones and that limit the ability of opponents to challenge housing projects.

This approach—of state mandates and state removal of opportunities for local governments or their residents to obstruct housing—is not without risks, but it also provides several critical advantages, not the least of which is offering political cover for local officials. By mandating certain outcomes or prohibiting certain practices as a matter of state law, it allows a mayor or city councilor to deflect local angst to a higher rung on the political ladder—the local electeds don’t have to argue with their constituents but can instead suggest that they take their concerns to the Governor.

It also is the most practical solution that Oregon has been able to come up with after over 40 years of kicking around statewide land use and housing issues.

The best answer, long term, would be for communities and their residents to conclude that more and higher density housing is a good thing. But while an open hearts-and-minds conversation about housing supply and affordability issues should be on the agenda of most every city in the country, it’s no substitute for concrete actions that will result in more housing being built quickly . . . and for that to happen, it will likely be necessary to make communities play more nicely with their toys.

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