As economic dynamism in America continues to shift the geography of economic opportunity, housing has become a top concern for a growing number of Americans. It’s clear that some areas are struggling to maintain or build enough housing to meet demand. With costs rising and preferences changing, we asked a group of experts for their thoughts on housing in America. The following text has been lightly edited for clarity.
Howard Husock, senior fellow in Domestic Policy Studies at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) and author of “The Poor Side of Town: And Why We Need It” (Encounter Books, 2021). Learn more about Howard’s work here.
How would you describe the state of housing in America?
Although there is always room for improvement, particularly regarding costs, one must, from a historical perspective, take a positive view of American housing conditions. A century ago, it was not uncommon, especially in the South, for homes to lack indoor plumbing. In 1940, nearly half lacked it; by 1990, that was down to 1 percent. The lack of electricity in rural areas is also a thing of the past. The homeownership rate has, during the same period, risen dramatically, the result of federal initiatives. The average renter pays 30 percent of income in rent—higher than in the past but equivalent to what subsidized tenants pay. Overall, Americans spend 28.5 percent of income on housing. These are reasonable figures. The goal of the National Housing Act of 1937 was “safe and sanitary” housing—and that is almost universally the case today.
What are the most effective policy solutions to America’s housing challenges?
As it has been historically, more and varied home and home type construction is always needed, as older structures need replacement and preferences for housing type and geography change. Those goals suggest a variety of policy solutions: building codes that recognize new construction techniques as safe (if they are) and especially zoning change to make possible building what I describe as naturally-occurring affordable housing: small homes on small lots; that is, housing density. This should not mean only apartment construction near transit centers, as some have suggested, but zoning that permits a “variegated” stream of construction: attached single-family, two- and three-family homes that allow buyers to pay mortgages in part through rental income. Historically, in the pre-zoning era, these were common and a source of affordable housing. I like to celebrate the three-family houses of New England, row houses of Philadelphia, two-flats of Chicago, and bungalow in Oakland. We need modern-day equivalents—and need to permit them to be built.
Are you more optimistic or pessimistic about the future of housing in America? Why?
Overall, I am slightly optimistic. California’s statewide legislation permitting construction of accessory dwelling units is a step in the right direction. New York Governor Hochul’s proposal to push suburban counties to permit denser housing was as well—though she mishandled it politically and underestimated resistance that killed the idea. Similarly, Minneapolis took a step in the right direction by eliminating blanket single-family zoning, but failing to persuade suburban-style neighborhoods that would not be architecturally disrupted needlessly stoked resistance and court challenge. Suburban counties which are sensitively incentivizing somewhat denser construction (Washington County, Wisconsin) are showing the right path.
If you could change one thing about housing in America, what would it be?
Relax large-lot single family zoning by persuading local planning boards it can be in their interest to do so.