Zoning, Building Codes, & Cheap Housing

Over at Market Urbanism, Emily Washington writes about the need for low quality housing, attributing some of the high cost of housing in US cities to building codes that increase construction costs. Some provisions of building codes were encouraged by social reformers and reflect middle-class standards and expectations, rather than necessities of health and safety.

Over at Rooflines, Jamaal Green responds that there is no shortage of low quality housing in the US. Anyone with a cursory familiarity with the lower end of the US housing market can vouch for the fact that there are many dwellings out there, in cheap cities and expensive ones alike, that are very low quality in their ability to provide shelter, keep out pests, supply functioning water and sewer connections, and so on.

Part of the issue here is that quality can be used to convey a wide variety of characteristics. Something can be low quality in the sense that it is hazardous to human health and safety, or something can be low quality in the sense that, while functional, it doesn’t meet the aesthetic preferences of the neighbors.

As Paul Groth details in Living Downtown: The History of Residential Hotels in the United States, it is clear that many zoning and building code provisions reflect the middle-class sensibilities of Progressive Era reformers. In particular, living arrangements that were not centered on family life, such as residential hotels and rooming houses, were nearly driven out of existence. Unlike the lower end single-room cubicles of Groth and the doss houses of Jacob Riis, this was not due to public health, but to the perceived impact on social relations of residents. Turn of the century hotels and rooming houses made it possible for women to live alone and for both men and women to engage in intimate relationships, straight or gay, outside of marriage, behavior which was viewed as deviant by many reformers of the time.

It’s reasonable to think that building codes have an impact on the cost of construction. An 1870 pre-law tenement was basically a shell – no electricity, no gas, no running water, no indoor plumbing, no insulation. You could build a tenement pretty cheaply today, if you wanted to. However, code requirements have been phased in over time, and technology drives down the cost of construction. The cheapest new single-family construction today is nearly the same cost per square foot as a Levitt house, but the former is a much higher quality product.

It’s also beyond a doubt that tenements were terrible places to live. The most basic requirements – city water to each unit, indoor plumbing and city sewer service, gas and electricity – are requirements for survival and public health. The oral histories at New York’s Tenement Museum and of the Lower East Side represent people who lived in tenements after these basic amenities had been forced upon landlords by building codes. However, by 1932, Harry Shulman would write in Slums of New York that some tenement owners were making improvements of their own accord, because transportation improvements like the subway had made it possible for renters to find newer, better housing in other parts of the city.

This last bit is perhaps a clue into our situation today. There is lots of low quality housing in the US, but virtually none of it is newly built like the new law tenements were. I’m not sure about this, but the distinction between what can be constructed new and what has filtered down from old construction may be important. (Good transportation to places where new affordable housing has been built is also important, but not central to this discussion.)

The breakeven price for new, code-compliant construction sets an upper bound on what rents can be charged for older construction. If there is abundant new construction, rents for units in new buildings will be driven down to the breakeven price. Would that reduce the portion of the population subject to living in substandard conditions? If you can rent in a new building for the same price, your landlord can’t coerce you into accepting deficient conditions.

There should also be a breakeven price for maintaining old buildings; below that level (and perhaps above sometimes) landlords let the properties deteriorate and rent to progressively poorer tenants, until selling the building.

Zoning and building codes should both make the new construction breakeven price higher. In expensive coastal cities in the US, zoning is likely the largest contributor to high prices, simply by restricting the number of units that can be constructed on a property. If zoning is not constraining, the building code will still have an effect. I am no expert in building codes but others, such as Mark Hogan, have noted that multi-family construction costs in some places are quite high. There are probably improvements to the building code that could be made to help reduce costs. For example, a guest author on this blog once explained the impact of LA’s building code on high-ride construction costs.

For the breakeven price for old buildings, zoning and building codes should again both have an effect. Older buildings might be able to generate self-sustaining rents if allowed to be converted to smaller units, such as rooming houses. It might be less costly to comply with better building codes, reducing the breakeven price. Many code officials can tell you stories about having to order the demolition of well-constructed but unpermitted units for non-compliance, turning the occupants out onto the streets.

Zoning codes are probably the larger factor in housing costs. However, while we shouldn’t change any building code requirements that truly affect health and safety, it’s still worth seeing what can be done on that side as well. Though never eliminating the need for good code enforcement, relaxed zoning and better building codes should lower the price of new construction, making it harder for owners of old buildings to pressure tenants into accepting unsafe conditions.


One thought on “Zoning, Building Codes, & Cheap Housing

  1. Pingback: Zoning, Building Codes, & Cheap Housing | Par Excellence's space

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