Letter to the Editor: Confronting housing affordability requires innovative research

Building more dense housing is a vital task for reducing housing prices, and as Jonathan Ababiy points out, zoning laws present an impediment to this goal.

Sean Ericson

As Jonathan Ababiy describes in his informative article, zoning laws regulate what kinds of buildings people are allowed to build on their property. Building more dense housing is a vital task for reducing housing prices, and as Ababiy points out, zoning laws present an impediment to this goal. The most controversial type of zoning is single-family zoning, which mandates that only single-family homes be built in a certain area. In addition to restricting housing supply and raising prices, these policies also increase racial segregation. They are essentially bans on apartments, a type of housing disproportionately occupied by African-Americans.

However, zoning reform is not a panacea. Ababiy reports the findings of a recent working paper from University researchers. They found that while changing zoning does reliably reduce prices at the top of the market, it can have the opposite effect among lower-priced units as new development signals to landlords that an area is becoming more desirable.

Ababiy rightly points out that adopting more stringent tenant protections, as in New York and San Francisco, would help the low-income tenants who might be negatively impacted by zoning reform. However, this isn’t always true. One often-discussed feature of New York and San Francisco housing law is rent control. Unfortunately, rent control doesn’t actually work. Lots of research has found that rent control ends up raising rents in the long-term.

There are reforms that could work, though. The federal government could expand the existing Section 8 housing voucher program so that every family who qualifies receives one – something President-elect Joe Biden has advocated for. On the local level, cities can pass laws requiring landlords to accept such vouchers as long as their units meet the requirements. This could dramatically expand the available housing for the low-income people who receive these vouchers. Research I helped conduct for the nonprofit HOME Line in 2017 found that less than a fifth of rental listings in St. Paul that met Section 8 voucher requirements actually let tenants use vouchers to pay their rent. That year, Minneapolis had passed a law preventing landlords from discriminating against people with vouchers, but landlords sued to block it. Thankfully, this summer, the Minnesota Supreme Court ruled that the law can stand.

Confronting the housing affordability crisis requires innovative research and informed action from all levels of government, and I’m very glad that the University and the Minnesota Daily are helping advance this conversation.

This letter to the editor was submitted by Sean Ericson, an undergraduate student studying sociology at the University of Minnesota – Twin Cities.

This letter has been lightly edited for style and clarity.