Lawmakers talk a good game about more housing, then defeat a bill to do just that

·3 min read

Last week, the most comprehensive housing legislation introduced yet in Arizona was put on ice.

There was a lot for both parties in SB 1117: For Republicans, it cut red tape. For Democrats, it incentivized climate-friendly development and rolled back laws that have a history rooted in racial discrimination. For everyone, it would have meant more housing options and a start to alleviating our housing shortage.

Instead, it was unceremoniously voted down by members of both parties.

Opponents claimed SB 1117 made no guarantee for affordability. This is a snappy, one sentence rebuttal to an issue that deserves paragraphs of attention. It’s also a cynical response excuse for inaction that falls apart upon inspection.

When opponents say affordable housing, they do not mean “housing that people can afford.” Rather, they mean subsidized housing.

That is to say housing that is subsidized either through federal/state money, tax credits, or by market-rate units. This kind of housing is affordable, sure, but it’s just one type of affordable housing.

Most people (chances are, even the reader of this piece) live in market-rate housing. Whether this housing is affordable depends on its type and the market conditions when it was purchased or rented. Market conditions aren’t great now for a number of reasons.

Shortage caused by zoning restrictions, NIMBYism

Arizona faces a shortage of all housing types, at all income levels. The primary cause is restrictive zoning laws which create artificial scarcity, driving up rent and driving people out of neighborhoods.

Combine this with the Not In My Backyard (NIMBY) mentality that opposes any and all new development and a growing population, and you get the crisis we see today: Arizona is short 270,000 homes and prices are near record highs.

Who wins in this scenario? Wealthy folks who can afford to outbid the working class and investors who are exploiting the shortage to turn a quick buck.

Who loses? Everyone else.

We need to build new housing, of all types and price levels

SB 1117 attempted to alleviate this by making tweaks to zoning codes in larger Arizona cities, allowing “missing middle” housing that is naturally more affordable. Housing like casitas (small backyard homes), duplexes and smaller lot sizes.

An Oakland, California study found the average casita can be affordable at 60% of area median income.

Homes on smaller lots are affordable too. A Yale study found that halving minimum lot sizes lead to drops of over $26,000 for new homes. A smaller “starter” home is inherently more affordable than a larger one. Lastly, manufactured homes are also more attainable, with manufactured casitas costing less than half of a traditional site-build.

These are all types of affordable housing and they are prohibited in many areas.

Zoning reform and affordability are not in conflict with each other. Legalizing more housing, of all types is the key to achieving affordability and not just because building more housing will bring down prices.

Low-income housing developments face the exact same zoning restrictions as any other new development. Projects serving lower-income individuals and families are often built by nonprofits with fewer resources than large developers and face even stiffer NIMBY backlash.

Status quo and lame excuses will only further the crisis

So if housing reform would legalize whole classes of affordable housing, why do opponents claim the opposite?

Vague slogans about “affordability” have been co-opted by special interest groups who would rather see no changes to our broken status quo.

To solve our crisis we can’t let cheap attacks on real solutions be used as excuses for inaction. It could now be another year before the Legislature considers further housing legislation. That’s another year of rising rents and people being priced out of their neighborhoods.

As a result, the only thing SB 1117 opponents have managed to guarantee is continued unaffordability.

Stephen Chmura is a law student at ASU’s Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law. He volunteers with pro-housing advocacy groups such as Tempe YIMBY and the Urban Phoenix Project. Reach him at

This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Lawmakers craft a comprehensive bill for more housing then kill it