How to Spur Policy Action on Greater Homebuilding

Expert suggests partnering with people in other sectors who may be able to deliver your message to local governments more effectively.
An aerial view of new homes under construction

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The acute inventory shortage nationwide is affecting every segment of real estate, particularly workforce housing—or “missing middle housing.” What’s it going to take to get more of these critical homes to market? 

“We need to tackle zoning policies that only allow very narrow product,” Mike Kingsella, CEO of housing think tank Up for Growth, told attendees Friday at NAR NXT, The REALTOR® Experience in Orlando, Fla. “We need to create more certainty [for developers] to cut through the red tape, and we need to look at building codes so it doesn’t cost more than necessary to deliver each unit of housing.”

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Local municipalities’ ability to transition unimproved land to residential development has become increasingly difficult since the Great Recession in 2008, said Kingsella, whose nonprofit is focused on easing the housing shortage through evidence-based policy and cross-sector partnerships. In many areas, “it takes developers more than a decade to even get a shovel in the ground,” he said, adding that the housing deficit won’t be solved if entities are “duking it out” over individual proposals because of “nimbyism.”

“Let’s keep it simple,” Kingsella said, by defining faster processes to build and turn land into residential development. The New York suburb of New Rochelle is a success story in this regard. Close to public transit and with a growing population, the city needed to ramp up housing quickly. City officials established a policy to issue building permits in 30 days. “Over the past six years, they’ve seen about 15,000 new units of housing,” Kingsella reported. 

In another example of success, California introduced a legislative solution in 2019 to allow the state to issue local permits in cities that aren’t building or taking steps to build the amount of housing they need. When the coastal community of Santa Monica wasn’t able to move forward with development, the state approved some 4,000 units. 

So, what can REALTORS® do to bring change at the local level? Partner with those in other sectors, Kingsella said. Encourage your local chamber of commerce or a village or land use representative to make the case rather than a real estate practitioner, who may appear self-serving, he said. “That’s where we’ve seen legislative success.”