Policy Studies Competition Policy

Accessory Dwelling Units: A flexible free-market housing solution


Much of the American built environment was constructed in the post-World War II era, when government policy and planning fashion favored a highly dispersed development model centered on the primacy of the single-family detached home. Subsequent developments in zoning law tended to further privilege and protect the single-family detached home from any neighboring diversity of land use or building form.

As a pattern popularized at the peak of American nuclear family formation, such models initially met consumer preferences and served the needs of many. As the 20th century progressed, however, American demographic patterns and housing needs dramatically changed. The built environment was, by this point, too calcified by accumulated land-use regulations to adapt to these changes, producing significant distortion in high-demand housing markets and unresponsive legal environments across the country.

As housing supply constraints choke productivity in hot economic regions, and household structure and demographics continue to shift nationally, significant public-policy debates have been opened about the appropriate responses to these developments. These range from debates over national entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare to battles over gentrification in urban centers. The political disputes often are characterized by high tempers and little perceptible progress.

While these important, high-intensity debates continue, there is opportunity simultaneously to pursue lower-profile solutions that could alleviate pressure on the market, even if they cannot provide complete resolution to all of its problems. One supplemental policy priority would be to ease significantly existing obstacles to the construction and permitting of accessory dwelling units in single-family residential zones.

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