Christopher S. Elmendorf
Volume 71, Issue 1, 79-150
The problem of local-government barriers to housing supply is finally enjoying its moment in the sun. For decades, the states did little to remedy this problem and arguably they made it worse. But spurred by a rising Yes in My Backyard (YIMBY) movement, state legislatures are now trying to make local governments plan for more housing, allow greater density in existing residential zones, and follow their own rules when reviewing development applications. This Article describes and takes stock of the new state housing initiatives, relating them to preexisting Northeastern and West Coast approaches to the housing-supply problem; to the legal-academic literature on land use; and, going a bit further afield, to the federal government’s efforts to protect the voting rights of African Americans in the Jim Crow South. Of particular interest, we will see that in California, ground zero for the housing crisis, the general plan is evolving into something that resembles less a traditional land-use plan than a preemptive and self-executing intergovernmental compact for development permitting, one which supersedes other local law at least until the local government has produced its quota of housing for the planning cycle. The parties to the compact are the state, acting through its housing agency, and the local government in whose territory the housing would be built. I argue that this general approach holds real promise as a way of overcoming local barriers to housing supply, particularly in a world—our world—where there is little political consensus about the appropriate balance between local and state control over land use, or about what constitutes an illegitimate local barrier. The main weakness of the emerging California model is that the state framework does little to change the local political dynamics that caused the housing crisis in the first place. To remedy this shortcoming, I propose some modest extensions of the model, which would give relatively prohousing factions in city politics more leverage and facilitate regional housing deals.