Sometimes a political logjam that hasn’t budged for years suddenly bursts open. Change that seemed impossible suddenly seems inevitable. On the issue of housing costs, that time is upon us. Double-digit rent inflation and swelling tent cities have raised the red flag so high that Republicans and Democrats, from Montana to Texas, from Colorado to Florida, are taking notice and taking action.
This is a moment for both parties to come together on the right side of history. For decades, we’ve accumulated a raft of local regulations that increasingly obstruct the new housing that would unquestionably bring costs down for desperate families. Arizona, long considered a housing refuge by so many, is no exception.
Maps about what can be built where are arbitrary and outdated. Public meeting after meeting is tailored to attract naysayers and complainers about every slight change to a neighborhood. Oversight panels can add years to construction projects, enforcing boring, uninspired and expensive development standards.
The worst aspects of this are coming to an end, and it can’t happen too quickly. Montana just passed bipartisan reforms making it easier to build different types of housing. Florida passed a bipartisan zoning reform bill. Colorado
Democratic Gov. Jared Polis followed up on an extensive housing study with similar wide-reaching and broadly supported reforms meant to make many types of new housing easier to build. At home, Arizona’s own Housing Supply Study Committee scoured the state to understand the depths of the problem. Several bills are now being considered to act on that understanding.
There should be lots of easy decisions here. In much of the state, for instance, it’s hard or impossible to add a casita in the backyard for an aging parent or young renter. The same can be said for building apartments in a former cotton field or even in an obvious spot near a light rail stop.
Few of us would willingly consign our most vulnerable neighbors to either lawless clusters of tents or homes that require every last dollar for rent. But this is what decentralized democracy, for all it gives us, has done by blocking these kinds of local housing.
In most cases, all that’s required is to stop saying “no” to privately funded projects. Neighborhoods and cities can too easily say, “Not here. Try over there.” We’re now at a point where the last place “over there” is a tent on a street corner downtown.
This is why actions at the state level—those putting reasonable limits on local “Not in My Back Yardism”—are necessary now. There’s no “just build it over there” excuse at the statehouse. Leaders there are supposed to look across the whole region, to hold a mirror up to ourselves, to call upon our collective moral identity, to turn us back toward our best selves when local democracy has led to death by a thousand cuts.
Individual “no”s based on small local concerns have added up to communal catastrophe. These aren’t Arizona’s true communal values. Can a neighbor have a little roof over their head in a backyard down the street? In a nice new apartment near the light rail line? In a shiny new skyrise downtown? For most of us, the answer is “of course.” But, with the current system, a few locals don’t like the traffic, or the shadows, or the sightlines, or who they imagine the new neighbors might be. We’ve given them the heckler’s veto.
The result is that, instead of hearing “of course,” our potential neighbors are relegated to those tents or to pay $1,500 a month for shabby old apartments. The statehouse is where these questions can be answered clearly, without excuses. “Is (fill in the blank) important enough to justify double-digit rent inflation and a downtown full of tents?”
Across America and Arizona, people are waking up. The logjam is breaking. When the question is asked, we need our representatives to hold on tight to that mirror. You are the voice of our communal conscience. Say the answer loud enough that you can only bear to hear the one you know is right.
Gilbert resident Kevin Erdmann is an economist, author, and senior affiliated scholar with the Mercatus Center at George Mason University. He documents the sources of rising housing costs at kevinerdmann.substack.com.