Inflation in the Tampa Bay area has been driven largely by housing costs. For prospective home buyers, the median house is now $400,000, up $100,000 from just a few years ago. Renters have been facing double-digit increases for the past two years, making Tampa Bay one of the country’s least affordable regions.
There are no quick fixes to housing affordability, but one thing is certain: To address increasing costs, we need to build more housing.
Since the Great Recession, housing supply in Florida has lagged; new units are coming on line at half the level we saw before 2008, even as population growth continues. This may surprise people who see construction all around them, but according to the Housing Underproduction Report the state was already short 300,000 homes even in 2019. Meanwhile, 150 people have moved to Tampa Bay every day. As much development as we see, it’s simply not enough to keep up.
So, if there is a need for more housing, why aren’t building responding with new development to meet that need? Isn’t that how the market works?
There are many things that that make housing both complex and expensive, but perhaps the most significant barrier may be as simple as finding land to build on. Builders will tell you this is their toughest assignment.
“Sorry, we’re full” is a common refrain. It’s true that what little empty land that remains is hard to come by and should be preserved. But we’re far from full, and we can — and should — make room for everyone, while preserving the environment, and making it equitable to boot. That we don’t is a political choice. The most powerful function of local government is setting land use policy, and our policies have, as kids say, “lost the plot.” They’ve forgotten their job is to make sure the people who make our communities great can actually live here.
It’s time to face the facts. It’s time for us to grow “up.” Literally. Upwards.
Today, an estimated 80% of Tampa’s residential areas are restricted to single-family housing, including neighborhoods near downtown that have good access to jobs, shops and schools. These would seem to be exactly the places where new housing should be built.
Over-reliance on this kind of housing creates big supply and affordability problems. It’s simple math. An estimated one-third to one-half of the cost of building a single family home is the cost of land; if you can build two, or four units on a parcel you can spread the costs of that land over more units, producing more affordable homes. What if we could leverage this fact? If we could build more densely?
If it’s time for Tampa to grow “up”, how can we do it? The good news is that there are people working hard to give us solutions, including activists, neighborhood leaders and city staff. St. Petersburg has adopted some important changes to legalize “missing middle” housing that is compatible with single family neighborhoods. Gainesville recently legalized it city-wide. Dozens of other cities nationwide have taken have reformed land use to accommodate more housing.
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Even more good news: With a March election that’s sure to shake up the City Council, we have an opportunity to find out who is really ready to do the right thing. Who is willing to fight for density in our comprehensive plan? To legalize ADUs (accessory dwelling units that are a secondary housing unit on a single-family residential lot)? To reduce parking minimums? And to fix our zoning code? In other words, all of the things that make it hard to build homes for our neighbors.
Ask your candidates where they stand on these issues. Our new council must be prepared for change if we’re going on a new trajectory.
Nathan Hagen is a housing advocate and volunteer lead for YIMBY Tampa (Yes In My Back Yard), a chapter of YIMBY Action. Elizabeth Strom is an associate professor of Public Affairs at the University of South Florida and a co-leader of the Scholars Strategy Network’s Florida chapter.