Housing Affordability Institute’s Affordability Roadblocks series highlights housing policy issues which can adversely impact housing affordability and access.
Unlike the various building codes which outline safety, durability, and efficiency, aesthetic mandates simply impact the appearance of homes. These mandates are often tied to land use decisions made at the local level. Aesthetic mandates violate the basic principles of the free market. Instead of aesthetic and style decisions driven by property owners, a unit of government restricts consumer choice via local or state government mandates.
Often with these mandates, existing homes undergoing renovation are exempt, which raises concerns over the equal application of the law. These mandates also draw criticism for their exclusionary aspect. While often embraced and supported by product manufacturers and their trade associations, these local mandates function as a form of regulatory marketing.
In Minnesota, aesthetic mandates have been placed as terms conditioning the approval of planned unit developments, an alternative form of zoning. Some municipalities in Minnesota, in trade for greater density via a planned unit development variance, will require costly aesthetic upgrades.
On Aesthetic Mandates
Emily Hamilton, senior research fellow and director of the Urbanity Project at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, highlighted the exclusionary aspect of the most common aesthetic mandate: vinyl siding bans.
Vinyl siding bans are one of the clearest ways that land use reg[ulation]s have no purpose other than excluding households that are priced out when more expensive materials are required.”Hamilton, Emily (@ebwhamilton). (2020, Feb. 3). Twitter.
The exclusionary aspect of these mandates is alluded to in language supporting these bans. Discussing the 2021 Legalize Affordable Housing Act, which would prohibit aesthetic mandates in Minnesota, the Brick Industry Association said:
If enacted, the bill would lower property values, decrease public safety, and lead to a lower quality of life for homeowners in Minnesota.” (emphasis original)Brick Industry Association. (2022, April 8) “Help us oppose harmful Minnesota legislation.”
The bolded section, as emphasized in the Brick Industry Association’s message, echoes common coded exclusionary language often found in the discussion of housing land use decisions.
Aesthetic mandates vary in their application from municipality to municipality all across the country and include any government requirements on the physical appearance of the home. The most common form of an aesthetic mandate is banning vinyl siding, known colloquially as “brick of better” mandates or “beauty contest” laws. These requirements can include a complete ban on vinyl siding or limit vinyl siding to the non-street facing sides of a home. In the case of the latter, municipalities may ban vinyl for any home on a corner lot or situated adjacent to a public space.
Other examples include a mandate on mixing of luxury materials, such as a certain percentage of brick or stone along with wood or fiber cement siding; mandating a front porch; requiring steep roof pitches; limiting designs to pre-selected themes; or mandates on the use of wide window trim or other architectural design elements. One Minnesota city even has a city architect, a contractor whose sole purpose is to review all new home and home renovation plans and to ensure the designs fit with the city’s so-called “character.”
Aesthetic Mandates and Housing Affordability
The cost impacts of Aesthetic Mandates vary depending on a home’s size, municipal or HOA mandates, materials required and labor, the latter of which can vary based on the trade, materials and geography.
Up Tp $20,000 Per Unit
Four-Sided Aesthetic Mandates With Partial Stone Façade
Up To $3,500 Per Unit
Expansive Front Porch Mandate
Up To $2,500 Per Unit
Architectural Design Elements Gables, Wider Trim
Addressing Aesthetic Mandates
When imposed at the local level, these mandates can be willingly removed by municipalities. Local governments, however, have long demonstrated opposition to willingly reform their housing policies. Absent local action, state legislatures can step in and address this affordability roadblock.
The Vinyl Siding Institute (VSI), the trade association for the vinyl siding industry, has been successful in removing aesthetic mandates banning their members’ products. State legislatures in Texas, Oklahoma, Missouri, Tennessee, and North Carolina have all passed bills supported by VSI that prevent local governments from prohibiting local vinyl siding in new construction. In Minnesota, an article in the Legalize Affordable Housing Act, went one step further. Proposed legislation in Minnesota increases affordability and access by explicitly prohibiting any municipality from mandating the use of “specific materials, design, or other aesthetic conditions that are not required by the State Building Code.”