Connecting state and local government leaders
It may seem like housing policies that allow granny flats or multifamily homes on single-family lots are pretty contentious, but a new survey shows that most people support state and local policies that boost housing stock.
If you’ve ever tuned into your local zoning board meetings, it may look like there’s strong opposition to policies that spur housing development, often fueled by concerns around environmental impacts, gentrification and changed neighborhood character. But new data shows that most people—Democrats and Republicans, urbanites and suburbanites, homeowners and renters—support policies that add homes to communities and lead to lower housing costs.
At least seven in 10 people favor policies that make more housing available near public transit, on college or church property and near commercial districts, according to a new report from The Pew Charitable Trust. Most respondents also support allowing homeowners to convert basements and attics into apartments, as well as permitting them to build units in their backyards or above their garages.
“Some policies were much more popular than others, but support was broad,” Alex Horowitz, project director for Pew’s housing policy initiative, said during a webinar Wednesday.
The survey asked about 10 different policy initiatives. Among the most popular was requiring governments to make permitting decisions faster, with 86% of respondents saying they would support such an initiative.
Other policies proved similarly popular, with 81% saying they supported initiatives like commercial-to-residential conversions and allowing more development near public transit. Overall, the initiatives that saw the most support were those that added more housing to commercial areas and were unlikely to affect areas filled with single-family homes.
Among the policies presented in the survey, reducing lot size minimums—which leads to smaller yards and homes built closer together—was the least popular, but still 49% of respondents said they would support such a policy. Changing the minimum number of required parking spaces per unit was another policy that saw slightly less support compared to other initiatives, with 62% of respondents saying those decisions should be left to builders and property owners, rather than to city government.
In what Pew said was one of the largest studies of its kind, researchers surveyed more than 5,000 people in September to better understand the public’s views on housing policies. It offers insights that local planning meetings and public hearings can’t always provide.
“There have been questions about whether the public supports [policies allowing more housing],” Horowitz said. “Is this popular for policymakers? What do their constituents think? … That's why we conducted this nationally representative survey, because often feedback is gathered in ways that are not scientific like surveys are, [but rather] based on meetings or constituent feedback.”
Take, for example, the issue of adjusting land-use laws to allow multifamily buildings in areas typically zoned for single-family housing. With a quick glance at headlines where local leaders are considering such changes, it may appear that there’s strong opposition to this upzoning. But that may not reflect the broader public’s view on the issue—the Pew survey found that 58% of respondents support allowing townhouses or small multifamily buildings on any residential lot.
The report also provides insight into what’s driving residents’ support for updated housing policies. Unsurprisingly, reducing housing costs was one of the most cited reasons for increasing residential density. Following that, 76% of respondents said that more housing would benefit local businesses, both in attracting workers and customers. Similar shares of respondents said allowing people to live closer to jobs, schools and transit were good or excellent reasons to add more housing. Reducing homelessness and racial segregation each ranked slightly lower, at 73% and 66%, respectively.
There’s good reason to support these upzoning policies, Horowitz said. Previous Pew research looked at cities that have updated their zoning to allow more housing, including Minneapolis; New Rochelle, New York; Portland, Oregon; and Tysons, Virginia. These cities added homes at much higher rates compared to the United States overall, and they saw significantly lower increases in rent costs. Tysons, for instance, increased the number of homes by 23% between 2017 and 2021 and saw rent costs increase 1%. Nationwide, meanwhile, there was only a 3% increase in homes during the same period, and rents increased 30%. Climbing housing costs are the primary driver behind the country’s spike in homelessness, Horowitz said, underscoring the need for policies that lead to more housing.
States are increasingly passing legislation to push cities to allow for more housing, especially as more state leaders recognize how restrictive zoning has limited housing supply and slashed affordability.
Whether states have any role in shaping local land-use regulations is a contentious debate as old as zoning itself and one that often involves the outsized influence of single-family property owners. But while municipal leaders may not appreciate state intervention in local zoning affairs, those kinds of reforms may be what most people want, according to Horowitz
“Previous research has found that some local officials have not been supportive of state laws to allow more housing,” he said, “but that's different from the public overall.”
NEXT STORY: What does a resilient city look like?