Durning’s ‘Unlocking Home’

North American Alan Durning launches a scathing and insightful attack on our planning system and its impact on housing affordability.

He starts by lamenting NIMBY attitudes to highrise housing in his local neighbourhood.  He’s given up on the significant expansion of highrise development in the near term.

He offers instead some planning changes that can, with substantially less political capital, achieve greater density, and greater availability of affordable housing, without ‘upzoning’.  Essentially by removing unnecessary regulation which only exists to protect the interests of the privileged.

It’s hard to work out how realistic he thinks these changes are… which he paints as relatively easy, but which clearly are entrenched — if not as clear as opposition to highrises, then at least twice as subtle.

I can’t do better than to quote a few paragraphs from his introduction:

“Each of these strategies has the potential to win political acceptance soon in cities far and wide. Each costs cities basically nothing to implement. Each requires no public spending, just that the city clerk use the delete key on various lines of municipal code. Each would step up residential concentration
organically, without big changes in architectural character.  …

Above all else, each of these strategies could unlock homes for people who need them. They could generate thousands and thousands of units of inexpensive housing dispersed across entire metropolitan areas—in the form of new and converted boardinghouses, empty bedrooms rented out for the first time,
and basement apartments and newfangled garden huts tucked among the detached houses that make up the overwhelming majority of Northwest residences. In fact, these strategies might generate far more units of inexpensive housing than public subsidies currently supply…”

“At root, the problem is the too-powerful classist impulse for better-off people to exclude renters, people of pinched means, recent immigrants, students, and others who cannot afford to buy single-family homes. This impulse manifests itself in complicated and even subconscious ways. Sometimes it is even expressed
as a form of concern for vulnerable people. This theme will recur throughout the book. For now, an analogy will suffice.

Poor and working-class people tend to wear inexpensive shoes. They buy their kicks at places like Payless or Goodwill, not Nordstrom. Payless and Goodwill shoes are known for their low prices, not their sturdiness or fashion. Still, they do their job. To improve footwear among those without funds, banning
the sale of inexpensive pairs would do no good. Sending shoe inspectors to Payless to confiscate “substandard” clogs and Oxfords would eliminate them from stores, it’s true. But it would do nothing to make good shoes affordable to people who do not have much money. Sure, some low-income people would buy nicer shoes, by spending extra on shoes and less on other things. Others would buy cheap shoes
on the black market. Still others wouldn’t buy footwear at all: they would go shoeless.

This scenario is essentially what housing policy does in North America.”

“If everyone knew that a major purpose of city land-use laws—also called zoning—was to choke off the bottom end of the private housing market so that middle- and upper-class people would not have to live near renters, recent immigrants, and other working-class citizens, we might do better. We might rise up
and throw off these unjust rules. But, unfortunately, almost no one understands how land-use laws work. …

The immodest goal of this book is to lift the fog off the legal doors to common-sense, green housing solutions. Enabling reformers to find these doors is the first step toward unlocking them.”

Yes he is writing about ‘Cascadia’, the pacific north-west of the US and Canada… but I don’t think there is much difference to our situation here in Australia, terminology aside.

Hard hitting, well informed, clearly argued and concise, Durning’s book is well worth a review.

You can find it as a free pdf in various places online, as well as much of the material as blog posts on Durning’s own website (Sightline Institute, Sightline.org – e.g. this article on Vancouver’s supposed successful legalization of ADUs / secondary dwellings).

It’s worth the $3 for the ebook though.


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