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How to convince a NIMBY to build more housing

A new Vox and Data for Progress poll suggests voters increase support for building more homes when presented with an economic case for it.

Protesters in Philadelphia on September 9, 2020, advocate for permanent, affordable housing for all unhoused residents.
Cory Clark/Getty Images

Convincing Americans to build more housing is the only way to begin solving the national housing crisis. A new Data for Progress/Vox poll suggests one way to convince them: say it will help the economy.

The poll, conducted February 19-22 among 1,551 likely voters, found that making a strong economic case for changing zoning laws to allow for the construction of multifamily homes may be able to shift voters’ opinions. Zoning changes were net 10 percentage points more popular when paired with an economic case than with a racial justice argument, with fewer voters opposed.

As housing supply reaches record lows, many Americans are fighting over the dwindling stock of homes, and millions are losing hope that they will even be able to find an affordable place to rent, let alone own. Generally speaking, multifamily housing is the most affordable option, especially in high-opportunity cities and suburbs. The same amount of land can be used to build one house or several, allowing multiple families to live on a single plot of land. But building more of it is frequently unpopular (in practice, if not in theory).

Many people try to block new development near their properties, often by enacting restrictive zoning rules at the local level. They cite reasons ranging from worries about changing neighborhood character to insufficient parking spaces and congestion, and sometimes express blatant hostility to low-income and minority communities who might become their new neighbors.

There has been a lot written about the racism and classism embedded in zoning codes that dictate what can be built where. These rules were engineered to block people of color, and in particular Black Americans, from being able to live in higher-opportunity, predominantly white neighborhoods. And now, they effectively block low- and middle-income Americans from finding affordable housing, especially near well-funded schools and neighborhoods filled with amenities.

These regulations take the form of seemingly innocuous rules that prescribe minimum lot sizes, parking minimums, height restrictions, and more. In the end, they frequently have the effect of preventing developers from building anything other than large, single-family homes. And even when they can build multifamily developments, the cost of dealing with all these regulations makes it such that only luxury units are profitable.

This is a big reason why the current supply of housing on the market is at record lows. The National Association of Realtors calculated that at the end of 2020, there were only 1.9 months supply of housing left — that is, in just under two months, if no other houses were put on the market, the inventory of homes would completely sell out, given current market conditions.

A National Association of Realtors chart showing the supply of homes in number of months of inventory.
National Association of Realtors

Suppressing the supply of houses artificially drives up the cost of all homes and leads to widespread economic harm. In a 2015 study by University of Chicago economist Chang-Tai Hsieh and UC Berkeley economist Enrico Moretti, researchers find that because metropolitan areas have made it prohibitively expensive for middle- and low-income Americans to move to high-productivity areas, US aggregate economic growth was lowered by more than 50 percent from 1964 to 2009.

Convincing enough Americans that building more housing is in their personal economic interest is hugely important in ensuring that cities and counties start rolling back some of these most restrictive practices. But many advocates are divided on the best way to do so. While the original use of exclusionary zoning tools to trap Black Americans in low-opportunity neighborhoods is well documented, articulating that may not be the most convincing way to win converts.

In the Vox/Data for Progress poll, support for “changing zoning laws to allow for the construction of multifamily homes” is 44 percent when respondents are told that “it’s a matter of racial justice [that is] blocking Black Americans from pursuing economic opportunity and the American dream of homeownership.” With this framing, nearly the same number were opposed: 43 percent.

However, when respondents were told that changing these laws “will drive economic growth ... [and] allow more Americans the opportunity to get affordable housing,” support for the proposal reached 47 percent and opposition dropped to 37 percent.

The majority of this change appears to come from Republicans who under the racial justice framing had a net support of -29 percent. With the economic framing, the proposal is still underwater, but net support jumps 14 points to -15 percent.

Notably, there’s a stark age divide in support for changing these laws — 54-59 percent of those under 45 support multifamily construction depending on the argument presented, whereas only 38-41 percent of those over 45 do. This reflects the divide between older Americans who mostly own their own homes and younger ones who are watching this possibility drift out of reach.

Polls can show the relative popularity of these arguments, but it’s hard to say how effective they will be when put into practice. Often, people will say broadly that they’re in favor of more housing. But when asked about a new building in their neighborhood, they may all but exclaim, “Not in my backyard!” Changing that attitude will require more than making the economic case for housing density, but it’s a start.

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