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Pa. zoning laws are strangling home construction, and lawmakers want changes

Politicians and interest groups from across the ideological spectrum are pushing for changes to boost housing construction in areas where people want to live.

The legislation proposed in Pennsylvania would diversify housing options beyond single-family homes by legalizing duplexes, triplexes, and fourplexes in some areas.
The legislation proposed in Pennsylvania would diversify housing options beyond single-family homes by legalizing duplexes, triplexes, and fourplexes in some areas.Read moreShafkat Anowar / MCT

HARRISBURG — As housing costs soar for renters and homeowners, an unusual confluence of politicians and interest groups from across the ideological spectrum is pushing for legislation they say will boost housing construction in areas where people want to live.

Proponents on the left and right agree that zoning and building code regulations are strangling the supply of new homes in Pennsylvania.

“If we as a state really want to make housing more affordable and accessible, and we really want to keep the American Dream within the reach of low- and middle-income earners, then we must get rid of onerous government restrictions and let the housing market operate more efficiently,” State Sen. John DiSanto (R., Dauphin), who is sponsoring one of the bipartisan proposals, said at a news conference Wednesday.

These efforts are being championed by Republicans in the GOP-controlled Senate and Democrats in the House, the chamber they control with a one-seat majority. Both sides have bills echoing similar legislation that’s sought to make housing construction easier in states like California, Oregon, and cities like Minneapolis and Austin, Texas.

What the new laws would do

DiSanto, who was a real estate developer, said he enlisted the help of two of his Senate GOP colleagues last year to start finding fixes for the restrictive zoning laws. He plans to introduce his bill with bipartisan support in the coming days.

The legislation he is introducing includes reducing parking requirements, which add prohibitive costs to many apartment developments, to limiting minimum lot size requirements that make it very difficult to build more affordable housing in many municipalities by requiring that individual units be built on large parcels.

The legislation also would legalize duplexes, triplexes, and fourplexes in single-family zones, depending on a town’s population size. For example, in towns with a population of at least 5,000, duplexes would be allowed in single-family zones. In towns with a population of at least 20,000, developers could build up to a fourplex. Manufactured homes and accessory dwelling units — an apartment above a suburban garage or in a standalone tiny house — would be legal in any place zoned for single-family-detached housing.

These kinds of reforms have been popularized in many states and cities in recent years, as rents have soared and home ownership moves out of reach for more Americans. Deregulating land use is seen as a starting place to ease costs for middle-income households while making it easier to develop truly affordable housing.

That’s why a coalition called Pennsylvania Housing Choices Coalition has emerged to support legislation like DiSanto’s effort. Backers range from chambers of commerce and developer trade groups to Habitat for Humanity chapters and the Philadelphia Association of Community Development Corporations. The urbanist group 5th Square is a member, as is the Koch Brothers-backed Americans For Prosperity.

“The good thing about land use reform is that it snaps into a lot of different ideological frameworks,” said Jon Geeting, senior adviser for the smart growth group 10,000 Friends of Pennsylvania, which is part of the coalition. “There are affordable housing advocacy groups who understand that greater density options leave more room in the budget for affordable housing projects. There are right-leaning groups that are responsive to a property rights message.”

Among the backers of DiSanto’s legislation include fellow Republicans like Dan Laughlin (R., Erie), but also Sen. Nikil Saval (D., Philadelphia), a self-identified socialist.

“If you are not able to build the housing that’s needed, it’s going to increase the price of that housing, for homeowners and for everyone,” Saval said. “This is a way to decrease the effects of displacement, of rising prices, of all the things burdening people throughout Pennsylvania.”

The argument for local control

But if loosening zoning and building codes can attract supporters across the ideological spectrum, so can those opposing it. District City Council members in Philadelphia jealously guard the privileged control they exert over land use regulations, creating overlays to limit building heights or to advance affordable housing goals that they can’t get passed citywide.

“I would think it might generate some opposition from home rule advocates, and there could be some conflicting interests, even in the city,” said Joseph McLaughlin, a Temple University public policy professor who also served as a lobbyist for Philadelphia’s government in Harrisburg for many years.

In the suburbs, apartment and condo proposals are routinely met with ferocious opposition. Housing permitting in most of Philadelphia’s collar counties has declined dramatically in recent years.

Supporters of strong local controls over land use argue that the surge of recent bills in Harrisburg around zoning deregulation are largely giveaways to the real estate industry.

“It’s not unusual that builders and Realtors don’t want there to be any rules,” said Dave Sanko, executive director of the Pennsylvania State Association of Township Supervisors. “They want to be able to do whatever they want. But that’s not what drives the cost of housing.”

Sanko argues that problems with supply chains, labor or land availability have more salient effects on housing costs. Foremost, he says, local leaders are best positioned to decide what happens in their communities.

“One size fits all solutions” would rob communities of the ability to control what gets built and undermine the preferences of residents, he said.

“People pay more to live in a community with high quality of life, whether that’s because it has low taxes, or good schools or is safe,” Sanko said. “When you have things planted on you by out-of-towners, you lose that safety, you lose the low taxes, you lose the quality of life.”

Pricing people out of communities

But the lawmakers and advocates argue that these changes are necessary to fill vacant lots near transit with dense apartments or to bring more diverse income earners into wealthier suburbs.

“When we price folks out of communities, we also cut them off from the very jobs we want them to hold,” said State Rep. Josh Siegel (D., Lehigh), who noted that his fast-growing county is short 9,000 housing units for its needs.

The proponents of rethinking zoning try to counter arguments like Sanko’s in different ways. DiSanto frames the fight in politically conservative terms, as an alternative to expensive government housing subsidies, a means to ensure property owners can do what they want with their land, and a boost to home ownership.

“Far too many hardworking individuals and families struggle to find housing that is both safe and affordable,” said Laughlin, one of the Republican sponsors of the bill who ran a construction company in Erie before serving in the state Senate.

Those on the left argue that land use restrictions are a barrier to affordable housing projects in cities and in suburban jurisdictions that use minimum lot sizes and single-family zoning to restrict who can afford to live in their towns.

“Sometimes in larger cities, but often in suburban or exurban areas, they’re not building [enough] to meet the demand,” Saval said. “The need for housing is a neighborhood issue, but it’s also a regional issue. And sometimes doing that kind of planning on a very restricted geographic area makes it hard to actually build the amount of housing we need.”