About six months ago, in the early days of Triangle Blog Blog, I had an interesting correspondence with a Redditor who had trouble understanding why we had gone to the trouble of starting a blog on local housing and transportation politics, of all things.

Why care about something so niche?

Three recent articles reminded me of why housing policy is so important to everything else we talk about. And, while housing policy is often set at the local level, things have become so bad everywhere that we’re increasingly talking about housing policy as a national problem. And, once we realize how deeply housing policy is connected to everything else we care about, it becomes clear that getting housing right is the single most important thing we do.

The Climate Impact of Where We Live

First, the New York Times published a data visualization on the climate impacts of where people live. The color orange is used to identify areas that contribute more emissions  than the national average in a number of areas (food, transportation, housing, goods, services), while the color green signals areas that use less than the national average.  According to these data points, Durham comes off as a green city:


One would think that Chapel Hill and Carrboro, which has the reputation as being among the most liberal corners of the state, would come off even better. But, no, our poor land use leaves us looking like this:

chapel hill

Remember, this data is compared to the national average, which is not a very high bar. (This data comes from a project at the University of California – Berkeley. You can get an estimate for your household impact here). High-income places with better land use policies, like New York, tended to do fine.

An HOA battle over lawns

Second, the New York Times reported a second story about the climate — about a couple in Maryland that planted a pollinator garden in their suburban neighborhood. After a neighbor complained, their HOA ordered them to remove the native species and put in turf instead. They refused, and sued the HOA. After years of legal battles (and tens of thousands of dollars in attorney fees), the couple won its suit and convinced Maryland to change its law. Now HOAs can no longer require lawns, which is better for everyone.

Places that have high housing costs due to NIMBYism also have high rates of housing insecurity

And, third, in The Atlantic, Jerusalem Demsas published a piece that stated one of those obvious truths that too many are unwilling to face—places that have high housing costs due to NIMBYism also have high rates of housing insecurity. I think the analogy she opened the piece with is worth considering:

To explain the interplay between structural and individual causes of homelessness, some who study this issue use the analogy of children playing musical chairs. As the game begins, the first kid to become chairless has a sprained ankle. The next few kids are too anxious to play the game effectively. The next few are smaller than the big kids. At the end, a fast, large, confident child sits grinning in the last available seat.

You can say that disability or lack of physical strength caused the individual kids to end up chairless. But in this scenario, chairlessness itself is an inevitability: The only reason anyone is without a chair is because there aren’t enough of them.

The places that successfully address housing insecurity are also places that build a lot of housing. While local governments can and should address immediate needs, our efforts will not be successful unless we solve the bigger problem of not having enough housing in the first place.

Housing policy is the key solution

What’s striking about these three articles together is that in each housing policy is the key solution, even if it’s not apparent. We reduce our climate impacts by making it easier for people to add density in existing neighborhoods. We can improve our environment by taking on those who unnecessarily impose anti-environmental policies, like HOAs, in the name of aesthetics and property values. And, finally, we can help solve the homelessness epidemic by building more housing.

Fixing housing policy should be one of our highest priorities. It’s the rare policy change where we really can think globally and act locally. Let’s support Chapel Hill and Carrboro as they consider adding more housing in town.

In the last municipal election cycle, we helped increase turnout by over 20 percent. We're all volunteers who care deeply about Chapel Hill and Carrboro, and we're working to make Chapel Hill and Carrboro more vibrant, accessible, fun, and sustainable.  Please consider a small donation to help us keep our digital lights on, host events, and hire students to do data deep-dives.

Martin Johnson lives in Chapel Hill. He teaches film studies courses at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He is also a member of NEXT Chapel Hill-Carrboro and the Bicycle Alliance of Chapel...