Mar 3, 2020

Upzoning Our Homes

Allowing more housing options in an area should make renting more affordable
Salim Furth Senior Research Fellow , Daniel Bunn

Maryland delegate Vaughn Stewart (D-Derwood) wants to “upzone” our homes. It’s a term you’ll hear more often as concerns over housing affordability grow in Maryland as well as in the national consciousness. Upzoning means allowing for more types of housing that can suit more people — particularly those who struggle to buy or rent homes. Some homeowners oppose upzoning, but we think it would enhance the best attributes of our neighborhoods. 

Our two families live on quiet streets in Maryland suburbs just outside of Washington, DC, and Baltimore, respectively, where the heaviest daily traffic is (for one of us) a parade of chattering middle schoolers strolling down the hill at 7 a.m. and tramping back up around 3:45 p.m. Street parking is easy to find, and walkable commuter rail access substantially boosts home prices. 

The Bunn home sits on a lot that was previously split to allow for more and smaller homes to be built in the neighborhood. Many neighbors spend a few minutes every morning and evening walking to and from the train station, which is the best part of the commute. However, if you drive by that station on a weekday, you will notice nearly a mile of densely parked cars on the adjacent road. If more Marylanders lived a short walk from rapid transit—that is, if homes for two or three families could be built alongside single-family houses like the Bunns’—there would be fewer cars competing for daytime parking and fewer people with commutes stretching beyond 60 minutes in each direction.

The Furth home, like several others on its street, is a supersized modern replacement for a small 1930s house. Building a 2,800-square-foot house here is legal; splitting it into two or three affordable units is not. The Furth family has solved this problem and made the house affordable by renting out two bedrooms to friends. But that’s not a solution for everyone.

Delegate Stewart’s “Modest Home Choices Act” (H.B. 1406) would change the rules in favor of anyone who lives—or wants to live—within a mile of a metro, commuter, or light rail station. It would also impact residential lots in neighborhoods with large concentrations of jobs and neighborhoods with especially high incomes. In those locations, the bill would allow triplexes—buildings with homes for three families—on lots that currently allow only single-family homes.

If enacted, the bill would leave open space, nonresidential lots, and most zoning rules intact. Historic preservation rules would also be unaffected. In fact, the bill would restore the historic norm to many Maryland neighborhoods, which already have duplexes or triplexes that could not have been built under current rules.

In neighborhoods like ours, upzoning would mean that when people reinvest to replace aging structures, the replacements might look like the Furth house, but with an extra front door. The densities that made sense when our towns were villages at the edge of the DC and Baltimore metro areas no longer make sense, as the cost of housing indicates.

When land becomes expensive, it’s a clue that we should each use a little less of it.

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When land becomes expensive, it’s a clue that we should each use a little less of it. But local zoning rules prevent that; instead, they promote income-based segregation by placing each type of housing in its own “zone.”

Aside from increasing the diversity and choice of housing types, adding a few triplexes to predominantly single-family neighborhoods would lower rent for everyone. Our back-of-the-envelope math suggests that adding one triplex to every block in a desirable area would prevent a 6 percent increase in rent. Increased density would also benefit businesses that rely on foot traffic. The effect on home prices is uncertain: they might rise or fall, but only slightly.

For people who bought homes in our towns in the 1960s or 1970s, the new reality can be jarring. Their homes have appreciated steadily, and they’ve grown to love their neighborhoods. Each of our families was warmly received by old-timers across the street. There’s a natural fear that physical change might break up tight communities.

But the truth is that the ever-escalating prices will cause more change in our neighborhoods than whether or not a big new house has one front door or two. Keeping our multigenerational, multiracial, mixed-income communities intact requires housing that retirees and service workers can afford, too.

Salim Furth, PhD is co-director of the Urbanity Project at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University. Daniel Bunn is vice president of global projects at the Tax Foundation.

Photo by Landon Martin on Unsplash

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