The Housing Shortage Isn’t Just a Coastal Crisis Anymore

Robert Dietz, who travels the country as the chief economist for the National Association of Home Builders, warned of that confluence of problems before the pandemic.

“Over the last four or five years, every place I go, they cite underbuilding,” he said. The exception is communities that have been losing population (although they may need new or rehabbed housing, too, to replace homes that become uninhabitable). “Everywhere else,” Mr. Dietz said, “it was just a matter of degree and scale.”

There is more housing under construction nationwide today than at any time since the 1970s, when many baby boomers were forming households (today’s big construction numbers reflect in part that it takes longer to build a house amid pandemic supply-chain delays). But rising interest rates and fears of a looming recession mean that home builders are already starting to pull back, Mr. Dietz said. And even at the current rate of construction, it would take years to dig out of the country’s deficit.

What would it mean, then, to reconceive of the housing shortage as a national crisis — with perhaps national answers, and shifting politics? Housing researchers at the libertarian-leaning Mercatus Center have often pressed the issue with conservative politicians.

“Before Covid-19, you would talk to people in Utah, in Tennessee, and they’d be like, ‘Oh yeah, this is a blue-state problem, Democrats don’t know how to run their state, we don’t have that problem here,’” said Nolan Gray, a former city planner and Mercatus affiliate who’s now a graduate student at U.C.L.A. “And then of course starting in 2020, I’m getting frantic calls from people in states like Utah or Montana, or Florida increasingly.”

In a new book critiquing zoning, Mr. Gray describes how the federal government encouraged local communities to adopt zoning policies starting in the 1920s. It’s only fair today, he argues, that the federal government help undo zoning rules that have made housing more expensive.

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