Commentary: 2023 Is The Year Housing Reform Went Mainstream

Housing policy had a big year in 2023 and those passionate about the issues surrounding housing have a lot to be thankful for and to reflect upon as 2023 comes to a close. 

Nick Erickson, executive director of Housing Affordability Institute, examines what 2023 means in housing and what to look forward to in 2024.

If there was a central theme to housing policy in 2023, it would be that 2023 is the year that housing policy moved from a niche issue to one that is moving into the public consciousness. 

It’s hard to go more than a day or two without headlines talking about the high cost of housing. There is a growing acknowledgment that this is a function of a decade and a half of underbuilding and a regulatory framework ill-equipped to address the issue.

While a year a two ago, those who support status quo policies could try to deny or debate this reality, today they have shifted to simply defending against state-level action directed at addressing the problem they chose to ignore for so long. 

Public Support For Action Growing

Throughout the year, we’ve seen that public support for housing policy reform is growing. 

Zillow’s annual survey of missing middle housing strategies showed increasing support for modest densification this year. Across 29 metropolitan areas, 82 percent of residents would like to see one additional type of housing in their neighborhood.

Just a few weeks ago, the Pew Research Center released the results of its survey showing a large majority of Americans support policies that would increase housing affordability and access.  

This awakening is due to several factors, namely rising housing costs and an increased understanding of how contemporary zoning is negatively impacting housing access through media coverage of the topic. 

Related: Modest Densification Support Increases, Legislators Should Take Note

Big Wins Reveal A Recipe For Success

California continued pushing forward with reforms, cementing the notion that there is no single policy change. This year, with more states taking action, a clear pattern is beginning to emerge: 

  • Small Bites: Keep individual proposals small, focusing on one topic or subject area at a time.
  • Clean Bills: Do not bring in multiple competing policy outcomes. Bills that seek to address “housing and ______” will draw opposition from those who don’t support the “and.”
  • Large Coalitions: As housing affordability and access challenges grow, it’s becoming a topic for many non-housing groups, driving more and more groups to the policy discussion. These large coalitions are making great waves, and policymakers are listening. 

As we heard at our inaugural Housing Leadership Summit this past September, the result of efforts using these concepts see their efforts pass in a bipartisan manner with massive majorities. Those who follow this formula are much more likely to find success.

Conversely, the bills that try to do too much all at once, like in Colorado, Minnesota, and New York, found challenges in gaining the support needed to pass.

Related: Right Sizing Zoning: State Guardrails for Local Control

Looking Ahead

As big as 2023 was, 2024 could be another big year in housing policy. Here is what we can expect on the housing policy front in 2024:

  1. Better Employment of Data:  Recently, Matthew Yglesias said tweeted that what the YIMBY movement needs is “better analytic capacity to assess the actual impact of specific policy changes on housing “. I completely agree, and expect that we’ll see more work on this front from a variety of actors in the housing space, including Housing Affordability Institute. 
  2. Finding More Roadblocks: Diving deeper into the data, we’ll see expanded topics seep into the housing policy discussion: Labor shortage, single-stair/point block access in smaller multi-family buildings, condo-defect reform, and exaction guardrails will be the next housing issues discussed in state capitols across the country. 
  3. State-Level Action Continues: In Colorado, Arizona, Minnesota, and Utah (among others), we’ll see more discussion of state-level action on housing. It’s too early to say how many will be successful, but I’d say more than one state will see zoning modernization in 2024. 
  4. SCOTUS Action: The United States Supreme Court has two housing-related cases on its docket for the 2024 term. In Sheetz v. County of El Dorado, California, the Court will consider if building permit fees are exempt from the Nollan & Dolan. In Deviller v. Texas, the court will examine a case regarding property takings without just compensation. Both cases will be heard in January and could lead to new housing legal precedents.
  5. Distractions and Shiny Objects: As Congress wades into the topic of single-family rentals, it’s important to remember that people can easily be distracted by shiny objects. Housing affordability is best addressed when we target the cause of our broken housing ecosystem, not the symptoms. We’ll likely see one or two shiny objects that detract from the broader reform effort. 

Most importantly, as policymakers at all levels work to address the issue, we’ll see more and more evidence of how legalizing more housing options, increasing housing supply and reducing the cost of new units help to address the housing crisis. 

Nick Erickson is the executive director of Housing Affordability Institute.