Solving the “Missing Middle” Problem for Local Housing, Subsidies Are Not the Answer

Recent housing studies commissioned in Broome and Tioga counties identify a supposed shortage of mid-level housing. This is a growing national trend. As is too often the case, throwing money (i.e. taxpayer dollars) at the problem is the most discussed solution. There are other things we should consider.

The City of Binghamton in particular is notorious for excessive contractor licensing requirements. To any reporter reading this, please run a story on licensing standards for nearby Elmira and Ithaca in comparison to Binghamton. City officials need to show integrity and stand up to the union and contractor special interests and reform licensing in Binghamton. More competition brings down prices and will make renovation and repair work less costly for homeowners, which will reduce blight.

My town of Owego has reasonable building permit requirements, especially for do-it-yourself repairs and construction. All municipalities in our region should look at risk/reward approaches to permitting. Relax requirements as much as possible, for both DIY and hired repair and construction projects. Less permitting lowers costs, then homeowners are better able to keep their homes in good condition.

If a permit is required for a project, this often gives a homeowner trepidation and pause. Will taxes be increased? What about an idea of a 5 year property tax moratorium for any homeowners who make a significant investment in upgrading their home? Be careful to set cost limit metrics so there are no kickback schemes – contractors might inflate a project price to qualify then give the owner an undisclosed cash rebate if there is a hard rule such as “projects over $25,000 qualify”. Think through the consequences of any rule.

Government regulations lack scalability and impede the construction of low and mid-range housing. If a developer has to attend a dozen Zoning Board of Appeals meetings to get a project approved, and each of those meetings requires a lot of sunk costs in legal preparation, architectural and engineering reports, etc., the developer is going to see more potential gain for a higher end project. We need more mixed use zoning, and state environmental review processes need to be simpler. If planners want subsidies to be applied, target them at offsetting pre-construction regulatory burdens. Identifying these burdens for cost subsidies would bring them out for more complaints, so that we obtain needed reforms.

America has developed around the automobile, but some young people from large urban areas are not driving. We want these youngsters to look into our region for jobs. If they desire to live a lifestyle oriented to a walkable community, we should loosen up signage rules and other ordinances so people can promote and run successful small businesses from their homes. More mixed use zoning allows for development to better match market demand. Planners should neither be anti-car nor anti-pedestrian, let the market adjust to meet the needs of home buyers. Minimalist zoning laws allow for this.

Too much central planning has created the housing shortage problem, and more of the same approach isn’t going to fix it. Open up options for existing homeowners, new home buyers, developers, and builders.