Despite our country’s slow emergence from the Great Recession’s hangover, we remain in the midst of a dire housing crisis. The crisis of today is one of relative simplicity compared with 2008, but, despite its simplicity, it has become so entrenched in our nation’s “housing culture” that it has persisted unaddressed, but not unnoticed, for decades and could arguably have greater short-term and long-term impacts on our local, regional, state and national economies, if left alone: Over the past several decades, locally enacted barriers to the construction of for-sale and rental housing have intensified to the point that our communities continue to have a drastic shortage of housing at a diversity of price points.
In 2018, there were approximately 871,000 single-family housing starts in the United States. Although that number might seem more than adequate, when you account for population increase, the replacement of substandard, dilapidated or depreciated housing stock and other factors, the housing industry is falling far short of meeting demand.
The issue is particularly acute in this region. The Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments estimated that the region’s job growth far outpaces the available housing supply, which it projects could result in the region being nearly 50,000 units short by 2020 and 115,000 units by 2045. Compounding the shortage of available housing supply is the loss of homes affordable to low- and moderate-income households. A recent report from the Northern Virginia Affordable Housing Alliance found that the city of Alexandria saw an 88 percent reduction of market affordable units at 60 percent area median income between 2000 and 2018. Similarly, Fairfax County lost 8,000 market affordable units at or below 70 percent area median income between 2002 and 2010 as a result of rent increases and other factors. The council of governments’s report fully recognized just how daunting its projection was and recommended that the “region should commit to increasing the number of new housing units beyond those which are currently planned to maintain economic competitiveness and support transportation performance.”
There is no comprehensive or turnkey solution to meeting the demand for housing at all price points. Although some housing advocates lament the federal government’s shrinking role in promoting affordable housing, the reality is that serious attempts to address our full-blown housing crisis should involve a serious reexamination of our own backyards and the hyperlocal issues of land use and zoning that are constraining our housing supply.
In 2016, President Barack Obama released the “Housing Development Toolkit” to help communities identify ways to expand the availability of housing stock to meet growing demand. The report highlighted issues that Republicans, Democrats and housing providers have bemoaned for years: The proliferation of local barriers to housing over the past several decades has played a significant role in reducing the ability of many housing markets to adequately respond to growing demand.
Unfortunately, Virginia is not an outlier in this assessment. Around the state, antiquated zoning codes and land-use restrictions, off-street parking requirements, unnecessarily slow permitting processes and zoning ordinances that mandate larger-lot developments while stifling consideration of developments with a denser mixture of uses are restricting housing supply by making land significantly more costly to develop and making it near impossible to build housing stock that is attainable for individuals and families across the income spectrum. A Northern Virginia Affordable Housing Alliance analysis demonstrated the bifurcation of development patterns in Alexandria, Arlington and Fairfax, with a majority of land zoned for low-density single-use development with high-density mixed-use development concentrated along major transportation corridors. With a few exceptions, that report found that “inner-Northern Virginia’s baseline zoning makes more naturally affordable housing types more difficult to build.” There are examples of holistic, modern approaches to zoning in the region. Many of our planning departments in the region recognize the impact of their outdated policies and work tirelessly to refresh their approach to land use, but these departments can do only so much. The rise in a vocal minority’s outright hostility to any new development in some localities has created a politicized environment in which we, the broader community, strive to create or reinvigorate our neighborhoods.
A properly functioning housing market responds to changes in housing demand, in terms of the number, location and types of units needed. But in many communities, that isn’t happening. Our collective inability — and sometimes unwillingness — to remove these local impediments to housing has the obvious effect of squeezing out working- and middle-class families, driving up transportation costs as homes get pushed farther from core job centers, straining local government infrastructure, exacerbating income inequality and limiting our ability to create sustainable communities with long-term economic upward mobility for all residents.
This isn’t a call for the repeal of all land-use regulations; far from it. It is a call for partnership and dialogue between local governments, the private sector and the broader community to objectively reexamine and reshape our local policies toward land use, zoning, redevelopment and new development. Amazon’s investment in Northern Virginia has reinvigorated the discussion about modernizing our local approaches to housing and land use. We should welcome the investment in the commonwealth, but we also need to welcome its new workforce by providing them the option to live in the state.
Without that kind of open and honest dialogue, the prospect of building vibrant communities with an abundance of housing choice for individuals across the income spectrum will remain a quixotic and unachievable ideal.