Will building more housing, more densely actually make housing more affordable?

By Deborah Goonan, Independent American Communities


According to an article in the New York Times, the only way to solve the housing affordability crisis is to build more houses on smaller lots. It’s a common battle cry among some urban development professionals and academic leaders.

In fact, some proponents of housing density go so far as to criticize homeowners of single family property.

But is the guilt trip really necessary?


Building more housing, more densely, could help address
a widespread economic challenge. A fight over one
lot in Berkeley, Calif., shows how tough that could be.


BERKELEY, Calif. — The house at 1310 Haskell Street does not look worthy of a bitter neighborhood war. The roof is rotting, the paint is chipping, and while the lot is long and spacious, the backyard has little beyond overgrown weeds and a garage sprouting moss.

The owner was known for hoarding junk and feeding cats, and when she died three years ago the neighbors assumed that whoever bought the house would be doing a lot of work. But when the buyer turned out to be a developer, and when that developer floated a proposal to raze the building and replace it with a trio of small homes, the neighborhood erupted in protest.

Most of the complaints were what you might hear about any development. People thought the homes would be too tall and fretted that more residents would mean fewer parking spots.

Other objections were particular to Berkeley — like a zoning board member’s complaint that shadows from the homes might hurt the supply of locally grown food.


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This NYT article highlights the bitter battle for power over land use – one that pits state government against local governments. It also pits the NIMBYs against the YIMBYs. (Not In My Back Yard vs. Yes In My Back Yard)

YIMBYs argue that the only way to make housing affordable is to create more density. NIMBYs argue that other factors such as speculative development and foreign real estate investment put more pressure on housing prices.

The argument against excessive shading of existing homes and yards is a valid one. Not mentioned in the article, but also an important consideration, is how increased density can adversely affect storm water drainage. Local governments have had some very good reasons for requiring minimum setbacks and easements, as well as height restrictions on structures.

Have some local governments gone too far, making it virtually impossible to build apartments, duplexes, or back yard guest homes or cottages? Yes.

But there needs to be a reasonable balance between locally-mandated low density and state enforced maximum density.

Also missing from the discussion: no one is talking about bringing work centers closer to suburban areas, in order to cut down on commute times. Nor is anyone considering incentives for employers to permit remote work arrangements to reduce the number of commuters on California’s vast highway system.


In a nutshell, there are pros and cons to dense housing and mixes use development.

Advantages promoted by the industry:

Walkable communities

Affordable lifestyles near urban amenities

Reduces sprawl and conserves land and environmental resources

Promotes social interaction

Challenges and disadvantages of mixed use:

Residential and commercial owners and residents often clash, because they hold opposing interests and goals

Residential owners may be expected to subsidize commercial costs by paying more than their fair share of assessments to the master property owners’ association

Retail and Restaurant commercial tenants earn limited profits, may struggle to survive with limited foot traffic and no viable strategy to draw in customers from outside the community

Close proximity of commercial uses may expose residents to disturbances such as noise, foul odors, bright lights, and similar quality of life nuisances

Challenges and disadvantaged of increased housing density:

Residents have little privacy, increased exposure to nuisances such as noise from neighboring housing units

Parking is extremely limited or, if available, very costly

Traffic increases in suburban zones, where public transit is unavailable

Working class and low income residents are often priced out of redeveloped dense housing neighborhoods

In urban settings, limited daylight exposure for residents in highrise buildings

High concentration of hard surfaces and shortage of green space makes it difficult to manage storm water and prevent flood hazards

Many communities not designed to accommodate families with children

To learn more, see the following page on this website:



Have an article of interest to recommend? Email me at debgoonan@icloud.com

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