Bill seeks increased housing options in Nebraska cities

Bill seeks increased housing options in Nebraska cities

The Nebraska Legislature has given first-round approval to a bill that would require large and medium-sized Nebraska cities to take more action to reduce barriers to affordable housing options.

Sen. Justin Wayne’s Legislative Bill 866 advanced on a 28-5 vote and contains provisions of Sen. Matt Hansen’s LB794, also known as the Missing Middle Housing Act.

Middle Housing is a term describing a wide variety of housing options that exist between single-family detached housing and mid-rise apartment buildings. These options include duplexes, triplexes, backyard cottages, townhouses, and more.

A lack of middle housing is a significant factor in rapidly rising home prices in Nebraska and other states, and the current situation is not merely a product of homeowner and renter preferences. Government policies, including zoning restrictions set at the local level, impose regulations that determine how land can be used to build residential properties, such as the size of a residential lot, or how far homes must be set back from a street.

LB866 will push cities to scrutinize these long-standing regulations, which are preventing developers from offering in-demand housing options and keeping property owners from using their land in more efficient and potentially wealth-building ways.

In addition to charging cities with providing a regular report to the Legislature’s Urban Affairs Committee on the inclusion of Middle Housing and regulatory allowances or financial incentives for affordable housing, LB866 would require cities with a population greater than 50,000 to adopt an affordable housing action plan by 2023. Cities with a population of 20,000 to 50,000 would have until 2024 to complete their plan.

If a city does not adopt an affordable housing action plan, the new legislation would require the municipalities to adhere to a default plan that would effectively end single-family zoning, allowing Missing Middle Housing in all currently single-family zoned areas.

In an ideal world, this would be the default housing policy in all cities and was how the original Missing Middle Housing Act was conceived. But the amended version of LB866 gives Nebraska communities more time and opportunity to make strides toward including additional options in their housing stock.

The Missing Middle Housing Act is a good market-based approach to a problem that impacts large and small communities. But the issue has supporters and opponents who cut across traditional political boundaries.

Opponents of reforms to zoning are often known as NIMBYs (Not In My Back Yard), who can be either conservatives or progressives who tend to believe single-family zoning prevents a free-for-all and protects their property values.

This would include President Trump, who has started to use opposition to upzoning—as these reforms are often called—as a campaign issue, saying the changes would “destroy our suburbs.” However, there are also progressives on the same page as him, who believe more building harms the character of their neighborhoods.

On the other side are YIMBYs (Yes In My Back Yard), who may have various reasons for questioning current zoning. Conservative YIMBYs may see zoning as an unnecessary restriction on economic opportunity or property rights, while progressives may think a lack of Middle Housing contributes to urban sprawl, having a harmful impact on the environment and walkability, or that current zoning worsens racial and economic inequalities.

There always are legitimate public health and safety concerns with the use of land and property, but the free market position undoubtedly leans toward YIMBYism.

We may not always like what other people do with their property, particularly when we perceive an impact on our daily life. But everyone in Nebraska is impacted by affordable housing, including property taxpayers who may otherwise be happy with their current arrangements, and businesses that are hoping to attract talent and grow in our state.

While responses to housing policy will often differ based on how residents are currently situated, there is no more effective method for improving housing affordability than allowing more Nebraskans to use property in an entrepreneurial way.

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