Remote Work and Zoning Reform Can Alleviate our Affordable Housing Problem

housing concept

Land is a finite resource. It doesn’t scale as the population grows. Filter out areas based on habitable conditions, suitable development, infrastructure, public health and safety, and access to amenities, education, and job opportunities, and what are you left with? Not surprisingly, a situation like our current one, where the majority of people want to migrate to big cities in spite of prohibitive real estate costs.

Thus, the U.S. faces a growing problem regarding affordable housing. And according to a study by Oxford economics, there are two major factors influencing this crisis: supply versus demand, and median household income.

As we’ve already seen, if everyone wants to live in the same urban areas, the housing supply can’t keep up with growing demand. Yet the fact that a certain tier of households can afford to pay more also allows costs to rise. This creates a barrier to entry that tends to disproportionately shut out young or disadvantaged people from aspiring to affordable homeownership.

To address this issue, change is needed in the way we work and build.

Remote work unlocks new areas

The pandemic gave many companies an unexpected taste of how to operate with a mostly remote workforce. And while results have been mixed, it’s hard to argue that mass adoption of remote work has been the disaster many employers would’ve feared in years past.

Employees can be more productive, even when they aren’t under the watchful eye of a supervisor all day. Teams can still collaborate while cutting down on the time that would otherwise be wasted on in-office meetings.

From a housing perspective, remote work can be a game-changer. People have flocked to expensive cities in large part because that’s where you find the best jobs. And you pay a corresponding premium to live closer to those workplaces. But now, that’s not even necessary.

If your job can be carried out without ever reporting to the office, you should be able to live elsewhere, preferably with a lower housing cost, while earning competitive wages. Yet currently, even leading tech companies are sharply divided on this issue. We need to push for a long-term shift towards fully remote work wherever possible. It will relieve some strain on the supply side of the market without lowering the incomes of prospective homeowners.

new house

Calling for zoning code reform

The more insidious factor that’s limiting our options for affordable housing development is rooted in design. Our cities and suburbs are steeped in layers of zoning codes, housing design regulations, and historic preservation restrictions. The intent may be ensuring that communities look nice, but one major adverse effect is that affordable development projects get shuttered indefinitely.

Most people accept that homeownership is expensive, and you’ve probably heard that buying a house is the biggest purchase you’ll ever make. And if cost were the only obstacle, people could get around that. Even low-to-middle-income households with below-average credit scores can apply for an FHA loan.

But what’s happening with overly tight design policing today is that it’s becoming a tool for exclusion. Many desirable living spaces in our cities only permit single-family residential zoning. People who can only afford to live in multi-family homes or mass housing projects have nowhere else to go besides the existing areas. These tend to have higher crime rates, lower quality of education and jobs, and limited access to green spaces for well-being. Without zoning code reform, we’re locking these people into a negative spiral.

A problem for everyone

These changes to the way we work and build won’t happen without our action. Employees need to use their voice at work and let management know that they won’t settle for needless requirements to return to the office. Local residents need to participate in community meetings and make sure that prohibitive policies aren’t being enforced merely out of a sense of “NIMBYism” (not in my backyard).

Meaningful change doesn’t happen unless you will it and make an effort. For a lot of current homeowners, that’s tough to grasp. We’ve grown up under the prevailing wisdom that a home is an investment. As a result, we’re conditioned to do things and support measures that protect their value. That includes fighting against affordable housing, or supporting a return to the office just because these things are the status quo.

But while the affordable housing crisis might seem to be a problem only for those who lack the means, it’s really going to affect everyone in the long haul. It stifles the opportunities of a vast swath of the labor pool, which could include employees of community businesses you support. Perpetuating the status quo only hands-down the burden to our children. It’s time we cared enough to do what’s necessary for real change.


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