After over a century, Berkeley, California may be about to legalize missing middle housing – and it’s not alone. Bids to re-legalize gradual densification in the form of duplexes, triplexes, fourplexes, and the like have begun to pick up steam over the last several years. In 2019, Oregon legalized these housing types statewide while Minneapolis did the same at the city level. In 2020, Virginia and Maryland both tried to pass similar legislation, though they ultimately failed. This year, though, Montana and California may pick up the torch with their own state bills (even while the cities of Sacramento and South San Francisco consider liberalizing unilaterally alongside Berkeley).
Allowing gradual densification is an absolutely necessary step towards general affordability. Supply, demand, and price form an iron triangle–the more responsive we can make supply to demand, the less price will spike to make up the difference.* What I really want to focus on here, though, is less about policy and more about political economy. I believe allowing medium-intensity residential development could make additional reforms easier to achieve and change views around development going into the future.
We Love What We Know
More often than not, I think a generalized status quo bias explains a lot of NIMBYism. Homeowners are most comfortable with their neighborhoods as they are now and are accustomed to the idea that they have the right to veto any substantial changes. Legalizing forms of incrementally more intense development could re-anchor homeowners on gradual change and development as the norm.
The first part of the story is about generational turnover. If the individuals buying homes today–and the cohorts that follow–are exposed to gradually densifying neighborhoods in their day-to-day, they’ll anchor on that as what’s normal and therefore acceptable. Moreover, if we’re debating whether to rezone an area for mid-rise development a generation from now, I imagine that those changes will get a much fairer hearing if for no other reason than the homeowners in prosperous communities will have spent a lifetime seeing gradual densification and population growth.
Making Homeowners Pro-Growth
Beyond simply changing what people are used to and therefore comfortable with, I think there’s another pro-growth element here that’s about economic incentives. In a world where homeowners can add housing to their properties to make money, they’ll increasingly become focused on their right to develop their own land instead of their right to stop other people from developing theirs.
This doesn’t necessarily mean everyone is going to tear down the family home, put up a duplex, and live next door to or above some tenants. But if that type of development is legal, it’ll be priced into the market value of everyone’s property, giving homeowners additional incentive to anchor on a pro-development norm–to do otherwise would be to actively advocate for reducing one’s own property values.
A lot of land use rules need to be changed in a lot of places across the country. As we address the technical challenges of better policy, we have to address the incentive structures and belief systems that conspired to create the world we’re dealing with now. And I’m happy to say that as we start to bring back neglected forms of residential development, I believe we’re going to get progress on all three fronts.
*See Nolan Gray’s Density is How the Working Poor Outbid the Rich for Urban Land.