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Opinion Youngkin is right to focus on building more housing in Virginia

Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) in Stafford, Va., on Sept. 1. (Craig Hudson for The Washington Post)
3 min

Affordable housing looms as one of the greatest challenges facing the United States. And one way government could help is to condition development aid to local communities on their reforming land-use policies to permit more construction. Pop quiz: The foregoing is a rough summary of policy prescriptions offered by (a) Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.); (b) Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R-Va.); or (c) all of the above.

If you correctly guessed (c), then you perceive, as we do, an increasing consensus that there is no serious solution to the housing problem that does not involve building more of it, and that long-standing structural obstacles to increasing supply need to be addressed, aggressively and creatively.

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Mr. Youngkin floated his aid-for-reform notion in a policy paper distributed simultaneously with his remarks to the 2022 Virginia Governor’s Housing Conference in Arlington on Nov. 18. His goal, the paper said, is to “create reasonable linkages between discretionary state grant funding to localities and local policies and actions that encourage housing growth through executive action or statute.” The very same concept was embodied in Ms. Warren’s proposal — during her 2020 presidential campaign — to offer $10 billion in federal grants contingent on “reform [of] land-use rules to allow for the construction of additional well-located affordable housing units.” Mr. Youngkin plans to introduce housing legislation in the next General Assembly session, which opens on Jan. 11.

To be sure, Mr. Youngkin inherited a relatively robust state housing market when he took office 10 months ago. As an analysis by Jenny Schuetz of the Brookings Institution found in 2021, housing supply between 2010 and 2019 had grown the most in Virginia localities where people most want to live, “an indicator of healthy statewide housing markets.” The exceptions were in the Northern Virginia suburbs — Fairfax County and Alexandria — where supply growth lagged the statewide average. Fast-growing Charlottesville and Blacksburg, home to the University of Virginia and Virginia Tech, respectively, are showing signs of an incipient housing affordability crunch. Ms. Schuetz noted that in “California and Massachusetts, local zoning regulations now add up to a substantial drag on the overall statewide housing supply — a cautionary tale that Virginia should avoid.”

Critics were quick to accuse the governor of pursuing development over environmental protection and quality-of-life considerations. Those considerations indeed matter; yet they can be invoked without due concern for needed construction, including higher-density dwellings that let low- and middle-income people find homes near where they work. Mr. Youngkin told the housing conference that starting a single-family project in Virginia can take up to 30 months and upward of 36 months for a multifamily project. That’s a problem. “If you want economic growth, you need a workforce,” Mr. Youngkin said. “If you want a workforce, you need to have someplace for them to live.” Though the details remain to be seen — and lawmakers should scrutinize them thoroughly when they’re spelled out — Mr. Youngkin’s ideas seem to push in the same direction as those of other thoughtful leaders of both parties.

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