The Volokh Conspiracy

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Property Rights

Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin Seeks to Expand Housing by Curbing Zoning

The move is a step in the right direction. It also highlights how the issue cuts across ideological lines.

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Glenn Youngkin
Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin.

 

Over the last few months, Virginia Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin has made a push to try to liberalize zoning and other land-use regulations that block the construction of new housing in the state. In August, Youngkin  told a state Senate committee that "[t]he cost to rent or buy a home is too expensive," and emphasized that "[w]e must tackle root causes behind this supply and demand mismatch; unnecessary regulations, overburdensome and inefficient local governments, restrictive zoning policies, and an ideology of fighting tooth and nail against any new development."

More recently, in November, he put out a "Make Virginia Home" plan, which seeks to promote land-use deregulation in a wide variety of ways, thereby curbing "NIMBY" ("not in my backyard" restrictions on housing construction). Adam Millsap has a helpful summary of Youngkin's potential initiatives in the City Journal:

To make housing more affordable, policymakers must boost supply relative to demand, while holding everything else, including interest rates, constant. The press release announcing Youngkin's Make Virginia Home plan acknowledges the supply problem, promising to "promote increasing the supply of attainable, affordable, and accessible housing across the Commonwealth." That's a worthy goal; achieving it is another matter.

Research shows that the primary culprits behind high state and local housing costs are restrictive zoning and land-use regulations that artificially limit the housing supply. Youngkin's plan is short on details, but it explicitly mentions establishing guardrails for local zoning and land-use review processes. The state would impose deadlines to stop local governments from slow-rolling approvals; such delays impose big costs on developers and make otherwise attractive projects financially infeasible.

The plan also calls to investigate comprehensive reforms of Virginia's land-use and local zoning laws. But action, not study, is needed. Youngkin should consider allowing duplexes and triplexes by right, as in Minneapolis; making it easier to build accessory dwelling units (ADUs), as in California; and ending minimum parking requirements, as in Buffalo and other cities. Virginia could also prevent local governments from restricting housing by putting limits on local minimum-lot sizes, height restrictions, setbacks, and density requirements…..

Make Virginia Home also hints at permitting and other regulatory reforms, such as streamlining environmental review and making it easier for developers to meet mandated wetlands and stream-mitigation requirements….

In addition to reforming, streamlining, and even eliminating some land-use regulations via state preemption, Youngkin's plan also mentions an incentive to encourage localities to make such reforms on their own. Specifically, it calls for creating "reasonable linkages" between discretionary state funds and local government housing policies. In essence, discretionary state funding would flow to localities that liberalize land-use regulations. Local governments could still erect barriers to new housing, but they'd risk losing money.

Finally, the plan mentions building codes, an underappreciated factor behind high housing prices. Today's codes too often focus on marginal safety improvements, showing no concern for the higher costs of compliance. Some simple reforms would help.

As Millsap notes, Youngkin's proposals are steps in the right direction, but most are also vague and unclear. It is absolutely true that "action, not study, is needed."

At the same time, it is notable that one of the nation's most prominent GOP governors is backing "YIMBY" ("Yes in my backyard") zoning reform. His support highlights the way the issue of zoning reform cuts across ideological lines. Economists and housing experts across the political spectrum decry exclusionary zoning because it increases housing costs, cuts millions of people off from jobs and educational opportunities, reduces economic growth and innovation, and particularly harms the poor and racial minorities. But both sides of the political spectrum also have strong strains of NIMBYism.

When Youngkin attacks NIMBYism, he sounds a lot like Barack Obama, who recently decried "NIMBY attitudes" and "regulations" that "make it very difficult to integrate communities and allow people to live close to where they work." The measures Youngkin is considering are similar to those recently enacted in liberal blue states, such as Oregon and California. A recent Virginia Mercury article that dubbed Youngkin the state's "YIMBY-in-Chief" compared him to liberal California Democrats, who have recently pushed through major zoning reforms.

Previous Virginia efforts at zoning deregulation came primarily from the left, and often faced right-wing opposition. Such right-wing NIMBYism is far from limited to Virginia. During the 2020 election, Donald Trump  tried to rally support by claiming that exclusionary zoning is needed to protect white middle-class neighborhoods against an influx of the poor and minorities.

On the other hand, there is also a long history of left-wing NIMBYism. Obama wasn't wrong when he said in June that "[t]he most liberal communities in the country aren't that liberal when it comes to affordable housing." In Virginia, that sensibility is very much present where I live, in overwhelmingly liberal Arlington County, as shown in the opposition to the County government's "missing middle" housing initiative.

Like its right-wing counterpart, left-wing NIMBYism is partly driven by homeowners' fears that housing deregulation would degrade the quality of their communities. Both also are often influenced by the economically illiterate, but widespread, view that new housing construction actually increases housing costs, rather than reduces them.

Historically, of course, exclusionary zoning was often driven by white fears that African-Americans or other unpopular minorities might move into the area. Such attitudes have waned in recent years, but have not completely disappeared.

Hopefully, Youngkin's support will help move the ball on zoning reform in Virginia. We badly need it! More generally, I hope more people across the political spectrum will come to see that cutting back on zoning can create enormous benefits for both would-be movers and current homeowners in areas that now have tight land-use restrictions. If people as varied as Obama and Youngkin can see the light and come together on this issue, there may be some cause for optimism.