Zoning: Bad Habitat


As zoning laws continue to keep the dream of affordable housing just that, a dream, one usually apolitical group is calling for a change. Habitat for Humanity International says zoning laws, along with prohibitive development fees, often undermine its nonprofit efforts to build "simple, decent" housing for the nation's poor.

Founded in 1976, Habitat for Humanity has built more than 7,000 homes in 32 countries—without direct government funds. Support from former President Jimmy Carter has given the group high visibility in recent years. But Habitat has chosen to stay out of the political arena. Says Executive Director Millard Fuller: "We don't monitor housing legislation, federal or state. We don't lobby in legislative halls. We choose not to be players in political gamesmanship."

That is, until now. Impeded by housing regulations that often specify large lot sizes, multiple bedrooms and bathrooms, and minimum square footage, Habitat for Humanity is trying to get government to make exceptions for its efforts. Habitat's definition of "simple, decent" housing does not include a large yard, three or four bedrooms, and a two-car garage; its houses are often constructed with vinyl siding or a basic low-pitch roof. The goal is to move people out of shacks or off the streets.

Habitat for Humanity's media director, Jim Purks, says the group hasn't come into conflict with local zoning and housing officials. But it has found itself seriously hampered by expensive, time-consuming regulations.

"Overall, once [officials] know who we are, we find cooperation," he says. But in a recent project, the group, after 10 months of negotiations, paid the city of San Diego over $100,000 in fees to build seven homes costing $58,000 to $69,000 each. Those fees added more than 20 percent to the cost of each home. In that same project, Habitat for Humanity built 100 homes across the border in Tijuana for $5,000 apiece.

Antidevelopment activists are lobbying San Diego city officials to require all new home builders to pay $26,000 in building fees, notes Jim Lantry, a member of Habitat's San Diego board of directors. Angry San Diego residents had minimum plot acreage increased to reduce the number of houses Habitat built there. With that type of hostility, America's homeless might as well move to Mexico.