Local Politics: If you care about inequality say, ‘Yes, in my backyard’

Rob Moore
Photo by Jonathan Quilter

First, let's start with a disclaimer: Columbus is still a relatively cheap place to live compared with other U.S. cities. Despite being the 32nd-largest metro area in the country, rental costs in the city are only 61st-highest among the top 100 largest metro areas, coming in at only $1,350 on average, according to Zillow rent data.

That being said, many people in Columbus are still burdened by rent. According to a study released by the Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University last year, more than 40 percent of Columbus renters are “cost burdened” by rent, meaning more than 30 percent of their income is going to rent.

Ultimately, housing in the United States is a commodity good. It is bought and sold on the private market and is subject to pressures of supply and demand.

In addition to being a commodity good, the housing market is also heavily regulated. Some of these regulations are in the name of equity, such as zoning regulations that separate health-hazardous industry from residential areas. Many of these regulations, though, serve more selfish purposes.

One of the most important effects of local zoning policy is its impact on housing prices. Anyone who has taken Economics 101 can tell you that restricting the supply of housing will increase the price of housing. And local homeowners, who are more likely to vote and sit on local zoning boards, are more likely to favor more restrictions on housing development that will increase the value of their homes. You may have heard this phenomenon referred to as “NIMBYism,” short for “Not In My Back Yard.”

NIMBYism is not owned by a political ideology. Research shows that conservatives are eager to regulate new housing development in their neighborhoods. Surveys also show that liberals who voice support for pro-poor policies also oppose new development, even after being told that building more housing can ease rent burdens for low-income residents.

Experts see liberalization of local zoning as a key tool for reduction of inequality in our cities. Jason Furman, former chair of the Council of Economic Advisers, argues that zoning regulations can make communities more unequal, less diverse and less mobile. Brookings land-use analyst Jenny Schuetz argues that these regulations hurt economic growth and disproportionately affect young workers, the poor and people of color.

Despite the evidence of the negative impacts of overly restrictive zoning on both the efficiency and equity of local housing markets, the local zoning system is incredibly entrenched. Homeowners largely control the process and the issue has not bubbled up into political consciousness like health care, immigration and taxes have.

That being said, there are things Columbus can do to fight NIMBYism. City Council and other local municipal governments can support higher-density development, encouraging town houses, duplexes and apartments where they might otherwise zone for single-family.

City governments should also set goals for housing supply, working with local economic development consultants to meet the demand for housing in our quickly growing metro area. Politically, this may mean renters would have to stand up to entrenched, powerful homeowners, but as a group they have little to lose and much to gain from reform.