From rampant homelessness in San Francisco to skyrocketing prices in Salt Lake City and bidding wars in Spokane, Wash., the United States is in the throes of a housing crisis. Economists tend to say the root cause is development restrictions that limit new construction, especially of smaller, more affordable housing. As two partners in a wealth management firm put it on CNBC.com late last month, “There has simply been a large mismatch between the supply of and demand for housing, and the mismatch is especially pronounced for lower-priced, entry-level homes.”
But what if the homeowners these rules are intended to protect would rather see them loosened? That’s the finding of a survey released Monday by Zillow, the real estate listing website. Zillow surveyed more than 12,000 people in 26 U.S. metro areas and found that large majorities support allowing construction of some denser housing in residential neighborhoods.
Sixty-one percent of respondents said they would support the construction of duplexes and triplexes, and 69% said they would support “accessory dwelling units” (known as “ADUs” for short), like an apartment over a garage. In total, 77% said they would support either ADUs or duplexes and triplexes, including 84% of renters and 73% of homeowners — the group most likely to oppose new construction as it could lower property values.
In a sign that the rising cost of living has had some effect on attitudes, the percentage of people who agreed that “homeowners should be allowed to convert their homes to add additional housing units” increased from 57% in 2019 to 64% this year.
The cities included in the survey varied from high-cost areas such as New York, San Diego, San Jose, Washington, D.C., Boston and San Francisco, to lower-cost places including Detroit, St. Louis, Las Vegas and Phoenix.
A notable generation gap did emerge in the data: While 72% of 18- to 27-year-olds and 71% of 27- to 42-year-olds agreed with the statement that “having more affordable housing in my community is more important than free parking for myself,” only 47% of people 58 and older did.
Of course, it is one thing to back the construction of new housing in general and another to welcome it in one’s own neighborhood. Efforts to add affordable multifamily housing to suburban areas where single-family homes predominate are often met with fierce opposition. But Zillow found that 57% of those surveyed said “they would support an apartment building being built in their neighborhood.” Here, however, the discrepancy between homeowners and renters grew, with only 47% of homeowners supporting apartments in their neighborhood, compared with 72% of renters.
And while the results generally did not vary very widely between cities, there was a gap between some on the question of apartment construction in one’s own neighborhood. The two most supportive cities were New York at 64% and Los Angeles at 63%, while the two least supportive were Atlanta (46%) and Phoenix (48%). That may reflect the fact that housing costs are much higher in New York and L.A., or the fact that both are already denser than Atlanta and Phoenix.
Building apartments in most neighborhoods would be a radical departure from current land-use patterns and would require changes to zoning codes at the city, county and town levels.
“According to U.S. Census data, more than 60% of homes in the U.S. are single-family detached homes,” Zillow spokesman Will Lemke told Yahoo News in an email. “Those neighborhoods are created and kept that way through decades-old zoning restrictions.”
Such a change would have the potential to ease more than just the cost of housing. Multifamily houses, such as duplexes and apartments, are more energy-efficient than detached houses, meaning they less fuel for heat in the winter and less air conditioning for electricity in the summer, which in turn means burning less of the fossil fuels causing climate change. This is one reason that residents of inner cities tend to have lower carbon footprints than their counterparts in the suburbs.
The issue of adding density is politically fraught, however. During the 2020 presidential campaign, then-President Donald Trump campaigned on the claim that Democrats would force apartment buildings on unwilling suburbs and “destroy” them. Zillow’s findings may indicate, though, that such an argument would largely fall on deaf ears as Americans become increasingly accepting of new housing to accommodate a growing population.