Scott Tibbs

Duplexes, affordable housing and studentphobia

By Scott Tibbs, January 29, 2021

I started following land-use policy in local government when I was an undergraduate a quarter century ago, and one of the driving forces in that time has been studentphobia. Many "townies" do not want university students and their noise and parties driving down their property values or making their neighborhoods otherwise unpleasant. That is one of the biggest sources of opposition to the proposal to allow duplexes and triplexes in core neighborhoods as a way to increase affordable housing.

Studentphobia aside, the reality is that a housing model that excludes "plexes" pushes lower-income people out of the housing market. Anyone who remembers just starting out knows that a unit within a multifamily complex is less expensive than a comparable single-family home with a yard. It is not playing the race card to point out that exclusionary zoning laws disproportionately harm black and Hispanic families.

In fact, over the last century exclusionary zoning laws have been used with racist intent. (See here and here and here for more.) Does that mean that planners and city councilors in Democrat-dominated Bloomington were racist? No. They were more likely driven by limiting student housing and a NIMBY attitude. We can recognize the disproportionate harms without assuming those harms were intentional.

This is not to say that concerns about students are without merit. Students bring noise, trash, and disorderly conduct. Those concerns are legitimate, and it is also true that students are a part of this community. Without the student population, Bloomington would be far less economically and culturally vibrant. Balancing the concerns of permanent residents in core neighborhoods with the concerns of students is not an easy task.

One of my favorite objections increasing multifamily units is a claim in a letter to the editor that Donald Trump is "thrilled with this plan." The idea that the President of the United States has anything to do with, cares about or even knows about land-use policy in a city that has been dominated by Democrats for 50 years is laughable. This is a nakedly political attempt to tie a hated name to a policy to provoke a visceral reaction. By the way, Donald Trump has been very critical of federal housing policy that would push more lower-income housing into the suburbs. He made that a campaign issue in the 2020 election.

Bloomington is one of the most expensive places to live in the state. Much of that is driven by the presence of Indiana University, but exclusionary zoning policy has certainly contributed to that. Government policy pushes up the cost of both owner-occupied housing and rental units. It is good that some local Democrats have finally started to realize that and are looking at ways to reduce that harm. Of course, local Republicans have been pointing that out for decades, but I am nonetheless glad to see Democrats catching up.

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