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 targeted 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 housing;

  • 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.