Escalating home prices, property taxes, and natural disaster driven insurance
premiums have pushed homeownership toward un-affordability
in many parts of the country. Homelessness is an ever increasing problem and
population growth appears to be headed toward a pattern of smaller but more
numerous households which, regardless of size, will need a place to live.
So it's a no-brainer that America needs more housing. After all, everybody
has to be someplace and substandard housing, tent cities, and the back seats
of automobiles are hardly good places for anyone to live let alone the elderly
or families with young children.
So if private developers, government agencies, and non-profit organizations
try to address the problem with new rental developments
at all income levels (a new luxury project should ultimately filter down and
make more room at the lower end) that is a good thing. Right?
Well sure, except not in my back yard.
Not in My Back Yard or NIMBY
as it has become widely known, has become such an obstacle for developers of
multi-family housing that the National Multi Housing Council (NMHC)
has issued a white paper for its members entitled "Overcoming
Opposition to Multifamily Rental Housing."
The purpose of the publication is to identify and examine the nature of local
resistance to apartments and how it can be overcome. Most of
it is targeted at non-profits and real estate developers and would not be of
particular interest to a general readership. Also it is 21 dense pages in PDF
format and it is well beyond our purposes to report all of its contents, but
a couple of points did catch our attention.
The paper explains the nature of objections to multi-family
housing. NIMBY generally calls to mind angry abutters picketing outside of a
construction site or storming a planning board meeting, but NMHC explains that
type of opposition generally targets a specific project. More common are institutionalized
barriers to development such as zoning regulations that prohibit high density
or high rise developments. There are also, the paper says, jurisdictions in
which multifamily housing "is nominally permitted, but every actual application
for a building permit gets denied."
This is a very serious paper with one light entry, the introduction of several
new terms in the NIMBY mode:
- "LULUs" - Locally Unwanted Land Uses
- "CAVEs" - Citizens Against Virtually Everything
- "BANANAs" - Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anyone
NMHC lays out some of what it calls misconceptions about multifamily
- It lowers the value of single-family homes in the neighborhood;
- It attracts less desirable neighbors and thus may boost the crime rate
and/or antisocial behavior;
- Apartments are a drain on the local economy, overloading schools, requiring
more police and fire protection and other social and infrastructure support;
- Developments adversely impact traffic and parking.
The paper presents some interesting information about the impact of multi-family
housing on schools. On average, it states, single family owner-occupied houses
have 0.51 school age children while apartments, utilized as they often are by
singles, young marrieds, and empty nesters average 0.31 children per unit. In
new construction, however, the disparity is even greater. New single family
homes typically house 0.64 children compared to 0.29 in new apartments. While
the ratios change by income level, going up as income declines, apartment dwellers
on average almost always have fewer children per unit than similar occupants
of single family homes.
According to the paper, apartments also often generate more revenue than single
family houses to pay for their impact on schools and other community services.
In most jurisdictions, it explains, apartment complexes are taxed
as commercial property which often carries a higher ratio of property tax to
property value. For apartments in urban areas this ratio tends to average around
50 basis points more than for single family houses.
NMHC also argues that other types of infrastructure actually operate more efficiently
in high-density development than in single-family housing. For example, high
density development requires shorter sewer lines and other utility delivery
systems and police and fire protection per unit is cheaper when it covers a
smaller area. Thus "higher density developments like apartments are actually
more fiscally prudent than traditional suburban sprawl."
As to an increase in traffic and parking problems, the NMHC argument is that
an increase in congestion may only be real when one compares an apartment development
to the status quo, that is no development. But when compared to the alternative
of single family houses apartments average only one car per unit compared to
two for SFRs. Trips per housing units through various time periods - peak morning
and evening, and various week-end times - range from 40 to 81 percent fewer
for apartment units. This difference can be accounted for in a number of ways
- for example more apartment units can be located close to public transportation
nodes than single family houses or perhaps the lower number of children per
unit accounts for fewer trips to the schools, grocery store, or soccer field.
The paper goes on to refute what is calls anecdotal information about reduced
housing values and claims that renters do not have a stake in the community
and concludes that while further research into the impact of multifamily housing
would be welcome, that the available research provides strong indications that
such housing does not impose greater costs on local government, increase traffic
and parking problems, attract occupants who are less "neighborly" or more apt
to engage in or attract criminal activity. And, when well-designed and appropriate
to the community may even enhance property values.
We will take a look in the future at the Harvard Joint Center for Housing's
study that provides information on the state of housing in the U.S. which forms,
in part, the basis for this white paper.