This has been, among other things, a very good week for housing action in the United States.

On Tuesday evening, the city council of Sacramento, California, voted 9-0 for a plan that would, if it reaches final approval in a year, re-legalize four homes by right on every residential lot. It would remove parking mandates citywide and allow lots to be subdivided by right. Just as importantly, the concept currently moving forward would allow buildings of up to the same square footage as the amount of land on a lot. For example, a 5,000 square foot lot could have a 5,000 square foot building divided into four homes.

Though some Sacramento neighborhood associations are trying to mobilize against the plan, that size allowance would give Sacramento some of the best low-density zoning in the country. It’d meet or surpass Portland’s August 2020 reform in every way except Portland’s additional option for mixed-income sixplexes.

“This is an absolute gamechanger” for Sacramento housing, wrote local planner Dov Kadin, though it’s “far from a done deal.”

Housing advocates in San Diego noted Tuesday that their city is also considering a similar reform and could end up beating Sacramento to final action.

South Bend, Indiana just removed parking mandates citywide

On Monday, Jan. 11, the City of South Bend became the latest US city to make parking optional for all new homes and business developments.

“Even on some of the busiest days of the year,” city planner Michael Divita told WSBT-TV last week, the town’s existing parking lots “never fill all the way up.”

South Bend, home to Notre Dame University, was recently governed by Pete Buttigieg, President Joseph Biden’s nominee to lead the US Department of Transportation. Buttigieg pushed through a series of transportation reforms there while mayor.

Hartford, Buffalo, San Francisco, Minneapolis and Edmonton have all repealed their mandatory-parking laws in recent years. Portland effectively voted in August to remove its residential minimums, and Vancouver, BC, is considering a citywide repeal.

Montana will consider legalizing middle housing statewide

aerial photo of Missoula

Missoula, Montana, in 1993. Photo by Ken Eckert, Creative Commons.

Next week, Montana’s legislature will begin debating a new bill that would re-legalize duplexes on all low-density residential lots in the state’s 20 largest cities. It would also re-legalize triplexes and fourplexes on all low-density residential lots in the state’s four largest.

Rep. Danny Tenenbaum’s Montana Housing Choices Act, HB 134, would also strike down local parking quotas, making the size of residential driveways and parking lots a lot-specific optional decision rather than a one-size-fits-all mandate. The bill has its first committee hearing Jan. 26.

Tenenbaum represents part of the state’s second-largest city, Missoula. The 34-year-old Democrat was recently elected with the endorsement of the Democratic Socialists of America.

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  • “One thing that everyone on both sides of the aisle here in Montana will acknowledge is that we are experiencing a housing crisis,” said Tenenbaum. “Supply has not caught up with demand, and during the pandemic in particular, demand has expanded with out-of-state buyers.”

    It’s the latest bill inspired in part by Oregon’s passage of the similar House Bill 2001 two years ago. California, Minnesota, Maryland, Nebraska, Vermont, Virginia, and Washington have all considered similar bills since.

    “By bringing it up to the state level, I think you have a more evidence-based conversation,” Tenenbaum said. “That’s what I’m hoping for.”

    Massachusetts requires 115 towns to rezone

    map of Boston area townships showing that most will need to allow more housing

    Map via Mercatus Center, used with permission.

    Last Thursday, one of the country’s most exclusively zoned states set a new local precedent for action that could make housing more abundant and better-integrated by price.

    As part of Massachusetts’s omnibus spending bill for this year, Republican Gov. Charlie Baker signed onto a concept that had begun as a project of Democratic legislators: requiring dozens of cities in the Boston area to increase the amount of their land on which attached housing is legal.

    “It requires towns to provide some multifamily zoning but leaves them with ample latitude in how and where to do so,” wrote Salim Furth, a housing researcher for the libertarian Mercatus Center and a Boston native. “If Section 18 is thwarted by towns responding in bad faith, expect the next round of state preemption to be stronger and leave less of a role for towns.”

    As part of the same law, the state’s overwhelmingly Democratic legislature made another change that Baker and many local housing advocates had long called for: removing some of the state’s unusual two-thirds supermajority requirements when cities vote over whether to allow more housing.

    Furth noted that these measures should complement each other: The state is simultaneously making it politically easier to allow housing, and breaking the inertia of the status quo. It’s possible that, like Oregonians, Bay Staters could find that it’s easier to come up with good ideas after you’ve forced yourselves to start a conversation.