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Social Innovation and Informal Housing Supply

Changing zoning regulations is an inefficient way to address the housing affordability problem.
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Downtown Longmont, Colorado. (Photo: David Shankbone/Wikimedia Commons)

Downtown Longmont, Colorado. (Photo: David Shankbone/Wikimedia Commons)

What can we do to get residents to embrace greater density? I'm well aware of the modus operandi for contemporary urban planners. I was a planning and zoning commissioner for the City of Longmont in Colorado. Longmont actively sought projects of urban infill that would put more people in less space. We fought sprawl by trying to legislate culture.

Zoning aims to promote certain social activities in a prescribed space. In this part of the city, you may reside. In this other part of the city, engage in commerce. Within the residential sections exist different kinds of land use. Can you park a recreational vehicle on a public street and use it as a primary residence? If left unaddressed, this kind of grey area will be exploited. Even if addressed, people will try to game the system. Hacking the housing market in Silicon Valley:

Hacker houses and techie cooperatives have flourished here for the last two decades by way of the ad-hoc community networks that have always existed in cities. Now new pressure on the housing market has created opportunities for companies that claim to re-invent “co-living,” with centralized ownership and profit models.

Co-living is what immigrants did in Longmont, without the Bay Area real estate prices. I lived a few doors down from a single family home with multiple families. I saw more of this practice upon moving to Northern Virginia, where rents are three times what I experienced in Colorado.

In the face of high housing costs (or low wages), residents will live further out or in higher density. Culturally, we adjust to a longer commute or less personal space. This adaptive response poses a problem for political action.

Do nothing and workers will still figure out a way to live there. Do something and formally displace those who made an informal adjustment to the financial constraints. Whatever the policy, a demographic will lose.

Jim Russell, a geographer studying the relationship between migration and economic development, writes regularly for Pacific Standard.