Denser Housing Is Gaining Traction on America’s East Coast

For the past few years, cities and states on the West Coast have led the charge to build more dense housing and arrest fast-rising rents. Oregon passed the first-ever statewide law legalizing duplex homes in most cities, while California has debated one bill after another to increase the allowable housing near transit.

The East Coast has been slower to pick up on density as a solution to soaring costs for renters and home-buyers. But that may change in the new year. Late in December, Virginia became the first eastern state to see a proposal to prohibit bans on duplex housing across the state, among other housing fixes. Not to be outdone, Maryland will weigh a upzoning bill in 2020, plus a sweeping experiment to build European-style social housing across the state.

Next week, Maryland House Delegate Vaughn Stewart will introduce a suite of housing bills to expand rights for renters and options for buyers. This legislative “Homes for All” package would attack the affordability crisis on three fronts: by lifting zoning restrictions on new housing, generating a fund for public housing, and establishing new rights for tenants.

“What we’re really trying to convey is that the housing affordability crisis is so deep and so acute, that you can’t begin to solve it with just one solution,” Stewart says. “It’s time for the Maryland General Assembly’s response on housing to meet the scale of the problem.”

Stewart, who represents Montgomery County, a largely affluent suburban area outside Washington, D.C., was elected to office in 2019 in part on a pledge to address the high cost of housing and lack of so-called middle housing options. The subject is divisive locally: While Montgomery County council members voted unanimously to build 10,000 more housing units by 2030, the county’s executive, Marc Elrhich, opposed the resolution.

With the Homes for All bills, Stewart says he is focusing on justice and equity as an explicit goal of zoning reform.

“For too long, local governments have weaponized zoning codes to block people of color and the working class from high-opportunity neighborhoods,” Stewart says. “We’ve got to act boldly if we want to reverse decades of exclusionary policy.”

Maryland’s upzoning bill takes a different tack from the law recently introduced by Virginia House Delegate Ibraheem Samirah, which would legalize duplexes across the commonwealth. Instead of a blanket upzoning, Stewart has opted for a more tailored approach. His bill would increase the legally permissible density of housing only in areas with relatively high incomes, concentration of jobs, or access to public transit. It would also raise taxes to fund thousands of units of publicly owned and permanently affordable housing.

While both the Virginia and Maryland bills are the work of suburban D.C. representatives—officials separated by only about 30 miles—the two bills show how widely housing strategies may vary. Now lawmakers will weigh the benefits and drawbacks of each.

The D.C. area, including Montgomery County, faces an acute shortage of affordable and market-rate homes. A report from the Urban Institute finds that the region needs to build 374,000 housing units by 2030 in order to meet its pent-up housing need. Yet other parts of Maryland struggle with different housing crises, from sky-high vacancy rates and negative home values in Baltimore to exclusionary restrictions that freeze out new buyers on the Eastern Shore. Maryland is a microcosm for America.

“We’ve got Appalachia, the South, the water, a major Northeast city, affluence, poverty, immigrants,” Stewart says. “It’s tough to have a one-size-fits-all bill, especially with something as tough as housing policy.”

Bringing together a broad, durable pro-housing coalition is critical to pass any housing reforms, he adds. He designed his bill to appeal to tenants’ rights activist, market-oriented supply-siders, and socialist public housing champions (or PHIMBYs) alike.

The Modest Home Choices Act of 2020 would legalize a wide array of multifamily homes, including duplexes, triplexes, quadplexes, cottage clusters, and townhouses. The bill would preempt local restrictive zoning codes in census tracts that meet certain criteria for jobs, transit access, and median household income. Stewart’s bill uses the Opportunity Atlas, a demographic mapping project by economists at Harvard University and Brown University with the U.S. Census Bureau, as a guide for setting parameters for neighborhood opportunity.

For census tracts in Maryland that meet the opportunity standards, local governments must permit at least one of each kind of middle-housing option in single family home–zoned areas, and they must legalize duplexes by right. The bill doesn’t prohibit the construction of single-family homes; instead, it repeals local bans on duplexes and other multifamily home options.

Further, the bill, whose precise legal language is still being drafted, would require local governments to ensure that new development does not lead to any net loss of naturally occurring affordable housing. The bill leaves it to local governments to regulate other land-use codes, including property sizes and setbacks. In wouldn’t affect rural areas or low-income places with less opportunity.

A second bill, the Social Housing Act of 2020, would broadly fund and encourage the construction of new social housing statewide. This ambitious proposal could have enormous ramifications for the Old Line State.The fundamentals of his new bill are simple: publicly owned, permanently affordable, accessible homes, built with unionized labor, near public transit, and made available to a variety of income levels.

This kind of social housing, based on the Vienna model, is rare in the U.S.—there are maybe 600,000 to 750,000 units, fewer even than the federally capped figure for public housing. As far as proposals for social housing go, possibly only the Green New Deal for Public Housing Act proposed by Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and New York Representative Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez comes close.

“It sounds almost utopian to an American’s ear,” Stewart says. “But it’s very mundane in Europe.”

The Social Housing Act ams to create thousands of these units in Maryland. In order to fund these homes, the bill would tweak the state’s real-estate transfer taxes to include a new 0.75 percent tax for properties that sell for $1 million or more. The bill would also authorize a new $75 fee for real-estate notices, including trusts, covenants, and other documents (but not sales). It’s unclear yet how many public-housing units this new purse would actually subsidize, and some details about the funding and financing of the units may change as the bill’s likely impact is audited.

Building affordable housing is a challenge in Maryland. Historically, the state has spent a “cartoonishly low amount out of its Housing Trust Fund,” according to Stewart. From 1992 through fiscal year 2018, Maryland’s fund has received $49 million; in D.C., a similar housing production trust fund received nearly $170 million in fiscal year 2018 alone, even though the District’s population is 10 times smaller than that of Maryland.

The final plank of the Homes for All package, the Tenant Protection Act of 2020, is a grab-bag of new rights for tenants. Some of the provisions would implement protections available to tenants in California and New York, while others would expand renters’ rights in Montgomery County to cover the entire state.

For example, the law would allow Maryland tenants to leave a lease early if the landlord can’t or won’t fix defects, pests, or mold. It expands the rights of victims of sexual assault or domestic violence to terminate a lease early to include victims of stalking and other vulnerable renters—and it makes it illegal for landlords to evict tenants for calling the police after suffering these crimes. Maryland landlords currently have 45 days to return a security deposit; if this law passes, they’ll have 30 days instead. Plus, landlords will have to submit itemized receipts for any deductions.

“[The bill] takes some of our existing laws and brings them to the next level, giving the tenant the ability to be their own best advocate,” says Carol Ott, tenant advocacy director for the Fair Housing Action Center of Maryland.

Housing reforms face long odds, thanks in part to the diverse groups that tend to step up to face them down. The opposition brings together NIMBY homeowners who don’t want to share the wealth, socialist-types who don’t support market-rate developers, and racists who want to preserve exclusive white communities.

While zoning reformers can claim a few victories now, the YIMBY movement is still fractious, a challenge for housing affordability on both coasts. Stewart says that he hopes to overcome the “balkanization on the left on housing” by aiming wide.

“I’ve gotten frustrated by the in-fighting between those who think we should most principally focus on zoning laws and those who want to focus on renters’ rights,” Stewart says. “We can do all those things together.”

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The Right to Eviction Counsel Is Gaining Momentum

Back in 2017, New York City passed a law to guarantee free legal representation to low-income residents facing eviction. The first of its kind in the nation, the law established a standard for due process for vulnerable families with an aim to level an unfair playing field in housing court.

While landlords in New York appear with counsel in more than 90 percent of eviction proceedings, tenants were represented by attorneys in just 1 percent of cases in 2013. The new law is working: Over the last quarter, more than 32 percent of tenants facing eviction brought lawyers to their hearings, and in 2018, evictions were down by 5 percent from the year before.    

“Housing court was literally like David v. Goliath,” says Steven Banks, commissioner for New York City’s Human Resources Administration and Department of Social Services.

The right to counsel in eviction cases is a movement that’s gaining momentum. Today, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio will announce that the law is expanding to five new neighborhoods, with full implementation in sight by 2022. Other cities and at least one state are drafting their own right-to-counsel laws. And on Thursday, a bipartisan pair of senators, Colorado Democrat (and 2020 presidential aspirant) Michael Bennet and Ohio Republican Rob Portman, introduced the Eviction Crisis Act, a law that would support legal services nationwide.

“No person should lose their home because they cannot afford a lawyer, and New York City is the first city in the country to make this a reality,” de Blasio tells CityLab. “Over 350,000 New Yorkers have received free legal assistance so far, setting us on the course to be the fairest big city in America.”

The eviction crisis is national in its scope. According to Matthew Desmond, the author of the definitive 2016 book Evicted, more than 2 million eviction filings are issued every year, which exceeds the number of foreclosures at the height of the foreclosure crisis. Evictions are the engine of the cycle of poverty, fueled by a shortage of affordable homes everywhere and the legacy of racial discrimination built into the pattern of our neighborhoods.

Tenants who lack access to legal representation have very little chance of winning a case in housing court, even when the facts are on their side. Tenants frequently face eviction when they’ve paid rent but landlords claim that they haven’t, for example. For low-income families, coming up with proof that passes court muster may be a challenge. And in New York, rent increases that cause a family to face eviction may often be illegal. “On their own, tenants can’t establish that the rent is unlawful, that conditions are violations, or that the rent was actually paid,” Banks says.

New York City’s new law would expand the right to an attorney in eviction cases to Morris Heights in the Bronx, East New York in Brooklyn, East Harlem and Inwood in Manhattan, and Far Rockaway in Queens. Overall, evictions have declined by 30 percent from 2013 to 2018.

The movement has gained traction in San Francisco and Philadelphia, cities that have passed legislation for similar protections. Other cities, including Minneapolis, San Antonio, and Washington, D.C., have established programs to provide legal representation to low-income households. Boston is looking at a bill of its own, but Massachusetts could beat Mayor Marty Walsh to the punch by passing a statewide right to counsel law. Cleveland, Detroit, Seattle, Los Angeles—the idea is catching on.

Arguably, cities can’t afford not to pass right-to-counsel laws. New York’s law, for example, will cost $166 million to fully implement across all five boroughs. But putting families out on the street creates costs that are borne by the entire city. It’s hard to put a cost savings figure on keeping roofs over people’s heads, but evictions touch every corner of a local economy, from social services to productivity to healthcare.  

While major metro areas where the eviction crisis affects the greatest number of renters are taking up the mantle of right-to-counsel laws, there’s still room, and need, for Congress to act. New York Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Place to Prosper Act would guarantee a right to an attorney in eviction proceedings nationwide, a boon especially to rural residents or renters in conservative states that won’t see new tenant rights any time soon. For housing advocates, that’s the ultimate goal, but AOC’s suite of social justice protections is still a ways off.

The Eviction Crisis Act proposed by Bennet and Portman has bipartisan support, on the other hand. It stops short of a sweeping right to counsel, but would benefit renters everywhere in critical ways. The bill would establish a Federal Advisory Committee on Eviction Research and create a national database to track evictions, which would help local authorities monitor the toll of evictions and tailor better legislation to help prevent them. The Eviction Crisis Act would boost those local efforts by increasing funding for the Legal Services Corporation, a public-private partnership that helps to provide legal aid for low-income Americans. Finally, the bill would set new standards for fairness and transparency with regard to how consumer reporting agencies generate tenant screening reports.

Many renters who face eviction owe less than $600—an insignificant sum considering the enduring havoc the process plays in the lives of those who lose their homes. Guaranteeing tenants a right to counsel will raise the cost of pursuing eviction for landlords: These won’t be open-and-shut cases in which only the property owners have the lawyers.

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