The Dallas City Council held a briefing recently to explore pathways to create an environment conducive to more affordable housing. There are many factors that go into the cost of housing, some of which are more easily addressed than others. But even having this briefing is a positive step toward housing affordability.
Many citizens recognize how important removing zoning restrictions to allow more housing to be built. Reducing minimum lot size, allowing for more units to be built on lots, and allowing for non-conforming housing are ways to affect the housing market positively without undue government interference. This conversation is the first step towards an open marketplace where consumers, not government, determine the price of goods.
During the Dallas City Council presentation, an issue was brought up that not many people consider on this policy question. As people age, they no longer have a need for a large house with several unoccupied rooms after an emptying nest. And they may no longer want or are able to care for a big yard. Seniors want to be able to enjoy their independence while also living on a fixed income. Having an affordable, smaller home could be a great choice in those cases. Another issue that is overlooked is how affordable housing could help tackle Dallas’ homelessness. According to Housing Forward, the rate of family homelessness in the Dallas area has increased by 15%. breathing room in their bank accounts so that one tragedy won’t put them on the street.
The main pushback is a resounding song of “I don’t want multi-family houses to change the character of my neighborhood.” It has many different refrains like “Buying a house is buying a neighborhood” or “This will affect the stability of single-family neighborhoods.”
The reality is that the claim that they have a right to keep the neighborhood the way it was when they bought in is inaccurate. Spann v. City of Dallas, 1921, ruled that the “use [of property] cannot be prohibited to satisfy a mere aesthetic sentiment or the taste of other property owners.” Ask yourself, does my neighbor have the right to determine the color of my car to suit their own taste? Of course not. In the same vein, a person can only dictate what happens to their own property.
However, in a civil society, the voice of the people should not be ignored, especially when it comes to housing, neighborhoods, and communities. One possible compromise would be providing property owners with the choice of opting out of lower minimum lot size requirements by application, as Houston has done. Another possibility is context-sensitivity. In this case, when considering building three- and four-plexes the same design standards as existing homes i.e. it should look like other homes in the area and instead of allowing zoning “by right” rezoning for smaller lot sizes, or for allowing three- and four-plexes to be built in typically single-family zones on a case-by-case basis. While these compromises may be discussed in further meetings, the less government involvement with housing the better.
In any event, just beginning the conversation about moving the government out of the way of commerce is a very important step. Dallas should realize that, at least when it comes to property rights, where the government acts, it becomes more expensive. Where a free market exists, the people prosper.