Virginia Governor seeks to expand housing by curbing zoning and government red tape

Virginia Governor seeks to expand housing by curbing zoning and government red tape
Glenn Youngkin, Virginia Governor.

“Over the last few months, Virginia Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin has made a push to try to liberalize zoning and other land-use regulations that block the construction of new housing in the state,” notes law professor Ilya Somin.

This August, Youngkin  told a committee of the state Senate that “the cost to rent or buy a home is too expensive,” and said “we must tackle root causes behind this supply and demand mismatch; unnecessary regulations, overburdensome and inefficient local governments, restrictive zoning policies, and an ideology of fighting tooth and nail against any new development.” In November, Youngkin issued a “Make Virginia Home” plan, which aims to achieve land-use deregulation in a several ways, thus ameliorating the “NIMBY” problem (“not in my backyard” restrictions on homebuilding).

Adam Millsap describes Youngkin’s plan in Manhattan Institute’s City Journal:

To make housing more affordable, policymakers must boost supply relative to demand, while holding everything else, including interest rates, constant. The press release announcing Youngkin’s Make Virginia Home plan acknowledges the supply problem, promising to “promote increasing the supply of attainable, affordable, and accessible housing across the Commonwealth.” That’s a worthy goal; achieving it is another matter.

Research shows that the primary culprits behind high state and local housing costs are restrictive zoning and land-use regulations that artificially limit the housing supply. Youngkin’s plan is short on details, but it explicitly mentions establishing guardrails for local zoning and land-use review processes. The state would impose deadlines to stop local governments from slow-rolling approvals; such delays impose big costs on developers and make otherwise attractive projects financially infeasible.

The plan also calls to investigate comprehensive reforms of Virginia’s land-use and local zoning laws. But action, not study, is needed. Youngkin should consider allowing duplexes and triplexes by right, as in Minneapolis; making it easier to build accessory dwelling units (ADUs), as in California; and ending minimum parking requirements, as in Buffalo and other cities. Virginia could also prevent local governments from restricting housing by putting limits on local minimum-lot sizes, height restrictions, setbacks, and density requirements…..

Make Virginia Home also hints at permitting and other regulatory reforms, such as streamlining environmental review and making it easier for developers to meet mandated wetlands and stream-mitigation requirements….

In addition to reforming, streamlining, and even eliminating some land-use regulations via state preemption, Youngkin’s plan also mentions an incentive to encourage localities to make such reforms on their own. Specifically, it calls for creating “reasonable linkages” between discretionary state funds and local government housing policies. In essence, discretionary state funding would flow to localities that liberalize land-use regulations. Local governments could still erect barriers to new housing, but they’d risk losing money.

Finally, the plan mentions building codes, an underappreciated factor behind high housing prices. Today’s codes too often focus on marginal safety improvements, showing no concern for the higher costs of compliance. Some simple reforms would help.

Youngkin’s plan is in the embryonic phase, and thus lacks specificity. Moreover, in Virginia, the legislature is the dominant organ of government, not the governor. For example, the Virginia legislature picks state judges, not the governor. One house of the state legislature is controlled by Democrats (the State Senate, which is 55% Democrat) and the other house is controlled by Republicans (the House of Delegates, which is 52% Republican). So Youngkin cannot dictate many changes in this area. He will have to try to enlist support from state legislators, based on what they are willing to accept.

Nevertheless, as Professor Somin notes,

At the same time, it is notable that one of the nation’s most prominent GOP governors is backing “YIMBY” (“Yes in my backyard”) zoning reform. His support highlights the way the issue of zoning reform cuts across ideological lines. Economists and housing experts across the political spectrum decry exclusionary zoning because it increases housing costs, cuts millions of people off from jobs and educational opportunities, reduces economic growth and innovation, and particularly harms the poor and racial minorities….

Hopefully, Youngkin’s support will help move the ball on zoning reform in Virginia. We badly need it! More generally, I hope more people across the political spectrum will come to see that cutting back on zoning can create enormous benefits for both would-be movers and current homeowners in areas that now have tight land-use restrictions.

Economists support getting rid of many zoning regulations. As Professor Somin observes,

The case for cutting back on zoning restrictions unites economists and housing policy experts across the political spectrum. That includes both pro-free market experts and prominent left-liberals such as Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman…and Jason Furman, Chair of President Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers.

Japan is very densely populated and poorer than the United States. It has three times as many people as California, but less space. But even in Japan’s capital Tokyo—the center of the world’s most populous metropolitan area—people are able to afford housing. Why? Fewer zoning restrictions.

As Nolan Gray notes at Market Urbanism:

Japanese zoning is relatively liberal, with few bulk and density controls, limited use segregation, and no regulatory distinction between apartments and single-family homes. Most development in Japan happens “as-of-right,” meaning that securing permits doesn’t require a lengthy review process. Taken as a whole, Japan’s zoning system makes it easy to build walkable, mixed-use neighborhoods, which is why cities like Tokyo are among the most affordable in the developed world.

As the Wall Street Journal notes, although housing has gotten much more expensive in 32 major cities across the globe,

one major city has had stable housing prices as a result of pumping out housing supply to keep up with rising demand. Tokyo is one of the few cities in which supply has kept up with demand, keeping a crisis from developing. But that is due largely to deregulated housing policies that other countries would have a hard time reproducing.

As another article in the Journal notes,

In the past two decades, home prices in some leading North American and European cities have skyrocketed. In Tokyo, however, they’ve flatlined. So why no affordable-housing crisis in Japan? A big factor, experts say, is the country’s relatively deregulated housing policies, which have allowed housing supply to keep up with demand in the 21st century. With no rent controls and fewer restrictions on height and density, Tokyo appears to be a city where the market is under control—where supply is keeping home prices from rising as drastically as they have in many other major world cities.….The Japanese government began relaxing regulations that had restricted supply, allowing taller and denser buildings in Japan’s capital. Private consultants were given permission to issue building permits to speed up construction.

Hans Bader

Hans Bader

Hans Bader practices law in Washington, D.C. After studying economics and history at the University of Virginia and law at Harvard, he practiced civil-rights, international-trade, and constitutional law. He also once worked in the Education Department. Hans writes for and has appeared on C-SPAN’s “Washington Journal.” Contact him at


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