Nolan Gray is an urban planner in New York City and a contributor to Market Urbanism.
The defeat of SB 827, California’s ambitious pro-housing bill, masks a wider trend: Similar initiatives are on the march nationwide.
Last week, the most ambitious upzoning in American history died in committee. Designed to address California’s housing crisis, SB 827 would have permitted new four- and five-story multifamily housing within a half-mile of transit without having to undergo reviews, clearing away parking requirements and other local regulations used by homeowners to block new development.
But before its untimely death, the ambitious bill managed to garner a lot of media attention, and across the country, a number of campaigns are underway to facilitate new transit-oriented housing that should give advocates of the pro-development “Yes In My Backyard” movement hope. In California, SB 827 might have even provided valuable cover for a slate of other smaller housing reforms.
There’s SB 831, for example, which is currently being considered in the California legislature. It would close loopholes to the state’s recent preemption of “granny flats” or accessory dwelling units (ADUs), which have flowered since the state preempted local ADU ordinances in 2016. SB 828 and AB 1771 would also build on previous affordable housing efforts, giving teeth to the state’s current “fair share” requirements for housing construction. Under today’s weak rules, many cities can play elaborate shell games to get out of these requirements, but SB 828 would tighten up on the process at the comprehensive planning phase and ensure that more needed housing is built.
Other bills aim to ease the development hurdles facing new housing for farmworkers in agricultural regions and new housing near transit in the Bay Area. These legislative initiatives are more focused and technical than SB 827, but taken together, they would legalize a lot of new housing in the Golden State.
Beyond California, YIMBY fever is catching in Massachusetts, where state legislators are taking a serious look at zoning reform as a way to alleviate the commonwealth’s mounting housing affordability crisis. As Renée Loth notes in the Boston Globe, the current patchwork of local land-use rules and prohibitions serves to limit the supply of new housing and preserve historical patterns of racial segregation.
Back in 2016, the Massachusetts Senate passed a bill that would have set statewide standards for new ADUs and multifamily housing among other things, but the bill ultimately failed to become law. With Governor Charlie Baker taking a stand on the need to address the housing demand-housing supply mismatch, it’s likely that some form of this zoning reform will re-emerge later this year as a supplement to new state initiatives to build affordable housing. One proposal that the governor has already advanced calls for easing barriers to rezonings, which currently require an onerously high level (75 percent, or a supermajority) of support from voters to pass. While critics decry the reform as a threat to local government, it would ultimately take a major tool out of the NIMBY toolbox.
Smaller local battles to legalize housing are also underway as YIMBY groups form and mobilize in cities across the country. In Minneapolis, the YIMBY activist group Neighbors for More Neighbors is advocating for allowing small, four-unit apartment buildings called fourplexes in any area of the city zoned for residential, with support from members on city council and the mayor. This would allow many single-family homes in expensive urban neighborhoods to be converted into small apartment buildings, adding new housing close to downtown.
In Boulder, Colorado—host of the inaugural YIMBYtown conference in 2016—activists worked to legalize and ease the process of forming housing co-ops, which provide greater housing choice and affordable options for residents.
And in Austin—a city that seems to be turning into San Francisco in more ways than one—a burgeoning YIMBY movement is having an impact on the city’s ongoing zoning overhaul. When an early draft of the new code—dubbed “CodeNEXT”—was revealed, the group put the plan’s drafters on blast; subsequent drafts eased restrictions on ADUs and residential development in commercial areas. Their work, they assure us, isn’t done.
The setback of SB 827 may have been a disappointment for YIMBYs. But the bill helped start a bold new national conversation about what can be done to address the nation’s worsening housing affordability crisis. The Overton Window, or the range of viable policy fixes for this crisis, has been slammed open, and more and more policymakers in cities and states across the country are taking the issue seriously. The defeat of SB 827 isn’t the end of the YIMBY movement. If this flurry of new state and local land-use reform initiatives indicates anything, it may only be the beginning.