by James A. Bacon
Suburban Virginians were the key swing voters who gave Democrats majorities in both houses of the General Assembly. It will be interesting to see if Democrats now manage to alienate them.
Del. Ibraheem Samirah, D-Herndon, has submitted a bill, HB 152, that would require zoning ordinances in localities across the state to allow “middle housing” — duplexes, townhouses, cottages and other structures — in neighborhoods zoned for single-family dwellings.
Samirah characterizes the mandate as an “affordable housing” initiative. He quite accurately says that residential zoning restrictions restrict the supply of new housing construction by limiting housing units to one per lot. But rhetorically he goes off the rails. Describing suburbs as “mostly white and wealthy,” he implies that people wishing to live in safe, peaceful neighborhoods are guilty of racial discrimination.
“Because middle housing is what’s most affordable for low-income people and people of color, banning that housing in well-off neighborhoods chalks up to modern-day redlining, locking folks out of areas with better access to schools, jobs, transit, and other services and amenities,” he wrote on Facebook (as quoted by the Daily Caller, a conservative web publication).
Tim Hannigan, chairman of the Fairfax County Republican Committee, responds that urban Democrats are launching a war on the suburbs. Writes the Daily Caller News Foundation:
“This could completely change the character of suburban residential life, because of the urbanization that would develop,” he told the DCNF. “So much of the American dream is built upon this idea of finding a nice quiet place to raise your family, and that is under assault.”
“This is a power-grab to take away the ability of local communities to establish their own zoning practices … literally trying to change the character of our communities,” he said.
Bacon’s bottom line: At the risk of siding with a social justice warrior, some of whose rhetoric I dislike, I have to say that Samirah has a point. Indeed, Samirah is making the same point that Bacon’s Rebellion has hammered on for years: the unaffordable housing crisis in Virginia is a supply-side problem created by zoning restrictions. Demand for housing, created by population growth, has increased faster than supply, which has been choked by zoning restrictions.
Here’s what Samirah says on a Facebook post yesterday about his bill (my emphasis):
The purpose is to allow the market more opportunities to build housing units, which would help alleviate the housing shortage and help bring down costs. This would NOT get rid of single-family housing. In fact, my bill explicitly states that single-family housing types are still allowed on the lots that are zoned for them. My bill does not mandate anyone do anything with their housing—it’s up to property owners to decide what they want to do.
If Samirah were politically shrewd, instead of guilt-tripping suburbanites for wanting to live in safe, quiet neighborhoods with low taxes and good schools — something that “people of color” also aspire to — he would consistently champion free markets and property rights. Why shouldn’t homeowners be allowed to supplement their income by converting garages or apartments into granny flats? Why shouldn’t property owners be allowed to tear down a 60’s-era rancher and build a duplex in its place? It’s their property.
I do have reservations about the bill — I don’t like the state stepping in and dictating changes to local zoning codes. Government closest to the people governs best. But as D.J. Rippert has frequently warned on this blog, Republicans who long defended the Dillon Rule, giving the state primacy over localities, wouldn’t much like it when Democrats took control of the legislature and began imposing their policies statewide. Now the worm has turned.
Arlington County seems to have a better approach. The county is studying where “middle housing” would be appropriate — perhaps where housing is already dense and there is access to mass transit — rather than presupposing that it would be appropriate everywhere.
Also, why focus exclusively on residential neighborhoods? If we want to expand the supply of housing, we should be encouraging mixed-used development in the abundant land set aside in every locality for commercial and industrial uses. Apartments and condos in commercial districts are less likely to conflict with single-family neighborhoods, and they tend to be located on commercial corridors better adapted to mass transit.
Despite those reservations, I applaud Samirah for raising an issue that the General Assembly should have addressed a long time ago. Yeah, I wish he would avoid the guilt-tripping rhetoric… which, by the way, I think is counter-productive and won’t persuade anyone who doesn’t want to be persuaded. But the housing affordability issue is intensifying — especially in Northern Virginia — and Samirah proposes a response that is compatible with market principles and property rights. He’s not proposing (at least not in this bill) New York/San Francisco-style solutions like rent control or forcing developers to set aside below-market rate housing in new projects. In a Democrat-controlled legislature, we could see a lot worse.
Republican lawmakers face a choice. They can treat HB 152 as an issue that can help them win back the suburbs. Or they can live up to their free-market, pro-property rights principles and work with Democrats to address the housing affordability crisis.There are currently no comments highlighted.