Soaring housing costs in many areas of the country have sparked considerable public debate in recent months, with both ends of the political spectrum agreeing that there’s a problem. Solving it, of course, is the hard part.

Assistant Professor Noah Kazis studies issues of housing, land use, and local governments. Before joining the Michigan Law faculty, he was a legal fellow at New York University’s Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy, and he served as an attorney for the City of New York.

Last year, Kazis served as guest editor for a special issue of Cityscape: A Journal of Policy Development and Researchfocused on reforming land use to increase housing supply. Kazis recently answered five questions about current housing issues:

1. Would you agree that the US is currently in a housing crisis and, if so, how would you define the problem?

Yes, or at least there are multiple overlapping problems with the housing system that add up to a crisis. One problem is that there just aren’t enough homes in the high-demand areas to go around. This is putting immense pressure on rents and housing prices. 

This is an issue up and down the West Coast and throughout the northeast, from Boston to New York to DC, to varying degrees. We’re starting to see this in Florida. Smaller pockets of other metro areas may have an individual jurisdiction or jurisdictions with supply constraints, even if the metro area as a whole doesn’t. During the pandemic, we saw similar dynamics spring up very quickly across the Mountain West because of changing residential patterns due to remote work. It’s not the case everywhere, but this is a serious problem.

A second problem is that there are other places where the housing is really poor quality, even as low incomes mean housing remains unaffordable for many. This is also widespread—across the Rust Belt, across rural areas, but also in certain inner cities that might be just outside of high-demand places. This is another serious concern, and both can contribute to housing instability and cost burdens.

2. What is the role of zoning in creating the housing crisis, and in solving it?

Zoning has been tightening since its inception roughly a hundred years ago. That squeeze is driven by so many factors. We’ve got pretty good research that shows that restrictive zoning has been about racial exclusion, economic exclusion, a certain vision of environmental benefits (low density and lots of green space), and protecting property values. It’s also about gender and family roles. It’s a system that has evolved over a hundred years, so a lot has gone into it and we’re just now, over the last five to 10 years, rethinking that. There’s a lot to unpeel.

However, I don’t see a lot of demand for or need for abolishing zoning altogether. The only big city in the country that doesn’t have zoning is Houston, but they have a lot of things that look a lot like zoning. There is a role for land-use regulation, but we need to reconsider what we are regulating to change the outcomes. We should be loosening the amount of zoning considerably, adding in more flexibility, allowing more types of housing, and allowing more types of uses in proximity to each other. We should be thinking about what actually is harmful and what turns out not to be. And we need to reform zoning processes in tandem with changes to the substance of zoning rules.

3. Zoning typically plays out in individual municipalities. Is there any way to tackle the problem more efficiently than that, on a state or even national level?

Yes. It is true that most zoning happens locally, but not all land use regulation happens at the local level, and it never has. So first of all, legally, land-use powers are devolved from the state to the city. Therefore, states can take it back. In fact, pretty much every state has done so somewhere. A state might say, for instance, “When we’re talking about a gigantic power plant, that’s not for you to decide. That’s for us to decide. That’s a statewide kind of thing.” Or in the other direction, the state might protect wetlands regardless of where the local governments would allow building. 

More recently, states have gotten interested in thinking about how to expand housing supply. There have been a few laws on the books for decades trying to take on exclusionary zoning, but there’s been a lot more action on that in the last few years. Will these new laws work? We haven’t had enough time to fully see these latest efforts play out. We’ve got layers and layers of rules interacting with each other, and often taking out one rule isn’t enough to actually change the ultimate outcome. 

That said, I’m really encouraged by some developments that we are starting to see. California has reformed its processes that require planning for housing supply, and we are seeing rezonings to facilitate that. That process isn’t done yet, and rezonings don’t necessarily mean units that people can live in, but it’s encouraging. We’ve seen good results from California’s accessory dwelling units law. The transit-oriented development law in Massachusetts has created a bunch of rezonings. Are they enough? Not in one go. But we’ll see how far they take us. 

4. You’ve mentioned that there largely seems to be a bipartisan agreement that the US has a housing problem. Do you think there’s bipartisan agreement on solutions?

Not on every detail, but yes. I use a slide in my local government class that shows every blue-ribbon commission saying we need to do something about overly restrictive zoning—here’s the Johnson administration doing it, here’s the Reagan administration, the Bush administration, the Clinton administration, Obama, Trump, Biden. So I think there really is bipartisan consensus at the policy maker, elite level. 

The difference is in the messaging. The Montana messaging is about property rights—“don’t turn us into California.” In other places, you might have a racial justice message or an economic justice message or an environmentalist message.

The parties are starting in a different place, but they both share a basic interest in deregulating land use. However, there’s also a bipartisan consensus among many regular people that they don’t want to see this happen in their neighborhood. 

5. Is that “not-in-my-backyard” sentiment the biggest thing standing in the way of further progress? How do you get around that?

Yes, it is, but we have a lot of strategies. Some of them are just doing the work of organizing at the local or state level. That actually has moved the needle a lot, just getting out there and doing that work. 

Another strategy is to change the focus of the politics from local to state or even national government. At those levels, the debate is less about individual projects, right next to someone’s house, and more about values: Should we be building more housing or less housing? Should we allow apartments in or not? Asking a different question avoids some of the not-in-my-backyard answers.