The Cooperative Route for Housing Development

Change in the suburbs comes slowly. Public-sector inertia has long doomed schemes for housing, zoning, and local government reform, such as those put forth by Richard Babcock and William H. Whyte Jr. Even Senator Elizabeth Warren’s proposed use of conditional grants-in-aid to incentivize the creation of accessory apartments failed to garner much political support.

Covid and the rise of telecommuting exposed the need for drastic changes in the suburbs. The pandemic has resulted in drastic shifts in work habits, with fewer people commuting and more working from home, resulting in increased demand for shops, restaurants, and other amenities. If innovation is to come, it will come not from politicians, but land developers. The legalized bribery of campaign contributions allows them to have their way where academic reformers do not.

Since the Second World War, there has been a major change in American land development, stimulated and aided by federal mortgage regulations. That change has involved a movement toward multi-unit development stimulated by post-war demand from returning veterans and those fleeing troubled cities. Resistance by residents of established municipalities and concerns about traffic patterns led after 1960 to the creation of residential community associations with land assessment powers, and to federal standards discouraging grid-patterned roads. Today, more than a third of the nation’s housing stock, in some areas as much as 70 percent, is under the jurisdiction of RCAs, which typically control the maintenance of road, water, sewer and street-lighting infrastructure. The amateur boards of RCAs tend not to be innovative, and the management companies they hire are similarly unoriginal.

Original developers, who can launch, construct, or obtain permits for new facilities and activities, are the key to innovation in the suburbs. The facilities they build can be passed on to the local RCA to operate with assessments or user charges. Developers have the necessary experience to overcome bureaucratic hurdles, and offering new amenities will give them a competitive advantage in the market that may well exceed their cost, particularly where the cost involves obtaining permits rather than physical construction.

RCAs will have to be partners in any suburban innovations, and major social developments since the 1960s make it necessary for RCAs to enlarge their menu of responsibilities and reconsider old positions. Dramatic changes in family structure should inspire RCAs to allow landlords and homeowners to subdivide their units or create new units for the increasing number of small families. RCAs also should be flexible in response to the increasing longevity of the elderly and aging populations, allowing homeowners and landlords to make physical adaptations to their units. And as Covid and Zoom have accelerated the growth of remote work and increased the presence of primary breadwinners in residential neighborhoods during daytime hours, RCAs should be open to the need for new restaurants and convenience stores. These concessions would allow developers to be more creative and unleash their capacity for innovation.

Developers can offer numerous amenities that meet residents’ needs and enhance suburban life in response to social trends. Consider a few examples. In response to rising crime, developers could install small police cabins on the Japanese koban model and a corresponding patrol district to increase resident confidence. And since RCAs in many states already permit the construction of day-care centers alongside residential development, developers could build those facilities as part of their construction, potentially allowing a local nonprofit group to staff the new center. They could also turn one unit or the development’s gate house into a dining facility or a restaurant to meet the needs of remote workers. They could include very small second kitchens in residential units, allowing, with RCA permission, the creation or unification of separate apartments and permits for accessory apartment use.

These suggestions would almost certainly spark controversy. It would be counterproductive to mandate provision of such facilities by law, but municipal barriers to their installation should be minimized. If these and other suggestions were disseminated in a handbook for developers together with lists of suppliers of relevant goods and services, the likelihood that such provisions would prevail would increase. Such a handbook would be a useful product, whether created under public auspices (as with the HUD handbooks of the ’60s) or by private industry. 

For real change to happen in the suburbs, developers and RCAs will need to work in tandem. If they do so, developers may succeed where politicians have failed. Their success would render developers something like heroes, and would confirm the value of private enterprise.

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