Facing a housing crisis, Arizona lawmakers propose overriding city control
Arizona is short more than 200,000 homes to match demand and lawmakers think they can fix that by gutting local zoning regulations, a strategy that has drawn heated opposition from cities across the state.
The state’s supply of affordable housing options is dismal, with only 24 rental homes available for every 100 extremely low income households. Republican legislators have zeroed in on local zoning as the culprit.
“I have seen the evolution of these zoning regulations get completely out of control,” Senate President Warren Petersen, whose family owns a construction company, said during a Wednesday news conference. “Arizona used to be able to immediately respond: When somebody wanted a house we could…take dirt and we could turn that into houses in about six months.”
The housing crisis is, at its most basic level, a supply and demand issue, added Sen. Steve Kaiser. But red tape and lengthy deliberations widens the rift between Arizonans and the homes they’re looking for, according to the Phoenix Republican.
To address that, Kaiser has sponsored Senate Bill 1161 and Senate Bill 1163 which require cities and towns with populations greater than 30,000 to adopt more permissive zoning and building codes.
The first bill seeks to increase density by prohibiting cities from instituting a lot size requirement bigger than 4,000-square-feet for new constructions. Cities can, however, choose to limit developers to a maximum of six homes per acre.
SB1163, meanwhile, allows developers to circumvent zoning regulations altogether, giving them permission to build low-income multifamily rental properties in districts set aside for commercial, mixed-use or multifamily residential use situated within half a mile from a public transit stop. Past attempts to redevelop abandoned commercial areas as affordable housing have met with little success, as cities prefer to keep the areas available to attract future businesses.
A third proposal championed by GOP legislative leadership is House Bill 2536, sponsored by GOP House Speaker Ben Toma, that would streamline the development application process, implementing hard timelines for city zoning boards to respond. It would also heavily restrict the ability of city officials to determine what construction looks like, barring them from withholding permits because a builder didn’t adhere to design elements like the number of stories a project has, what color it’s painted or what kind of landscaping is done.
Cities would also be prohibited from blocking the construction of accessory dwelling units, small second homes added onto an existing property that are increasingly popular in Tucson, dubbed “casitas.”
Democrats joined Republican lawmakers on Wednesday to support the measures.
Sen. Anna Hernandez, D-Phoenix, a freshman lawmaker and staunch housing advocate, urged fellow Democrats and Gov. Katie Hobbs to approve the bills, saying the state has little time to spare when it comes to affordable housing.
“Our people cannot afford to wait any longer and the status quo cannot remain,” she said.
Hernandez was an outspoken supporter of another of Kaiser’s proposals that similarly overrode cities with the aim of increasing the housing supply. That measure was roundly defeated, with lawmakers who voted against it citing concerns over local control.
The League of Arizona Cities and Towns, which represents 91 municipalities across the state, is vehemently opposed to each of the measures. The bills do nothing to increase affordable housing or help struggling Arizonans, but rather cater to developers, Nick Ponder, a spokesperson for the League, said in an emailed statement.
“(These proposals) grant greater property rights to developers than in existence today, effectively tilting the balance of rights in favor of developers over residents who reside in the community,” he said. “This is why the developers are heavily lobbying these bills, because it will primarily benefit their interests while removing requirements to inform or work collaboratively with the public to ensure housing developments meet the needs of the community.”
Among the bills’ supporters are the Home Builders Association of Central Arizona, the Arizona Multihousing Association and Manufactured Housing Industry of Arizona.
The position that zoning regulations are to blame for the affordable housing crisis ignores the full picture, Ponder added. The state has struggled to keep up with a growing population since 2020, after years of low development rates following the Great Recession were exacerbated by supply chain issues stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic.
And the state’s friendly property tax laws don’t help: Some 26% of housing stock in Maricopa County alone is investor or seasonally owned, and 15% of home buyers are from out of state.
Claims that city officials are slowing down the building process are equally groundless, Ponder said. More than 80,000 units planned and permitted in the Phoenix metro area are waiting to be built, and cities aren’t the ones delaying their construction, he said.
As an alternative proposal, the League would be in favor of speeding up design review processing times and zoning change petitions to an extent, though not by eliminating design or building code standards as the current bills do. Accessory dwelling units and single-room occupancy housing for Arizonans 55 years and over, which were part of current and previous bills, would also be included for cities with populations over 75,000. And a menu of affordable housing strategies would be provided for cities to choose three options from, among them requiring cities with over 75,000 residents to expand SRO’s to non-seniors, such as homeless Arizonans, allowing city property to be used as transitional or veteran housing and reducing or eliminating impact fees for affordable housing projects.
The focus, Ponder said, shouldn’t be on forcing a one-size-fits all solution on Arizona municipalities, but rather on helping them better meet the affordable housing needs of their specific communities via flexible proposals. One place where statewide action could be used beneficially is in dismantling policies that have proven detrimental, such as the state’s preemption on inclusionary zoning, which prevents cities from requiring affordable housing be built along with market-rate units. Otherwise, Ponder said, local control is best.
“The needs of cities and towns and their residents in Maricopa County are different than those in Navajo County,” he said.
Future outlook: the need for a solution continues
Each measure has earned some bipartisan backing, but if criticism from city officials continues, they are unlikely to win Hobbs’ approval. While she has cited support from both parties as a key factor in which legislative proposals she signs, the Democrat hasn’t shied away from vetoing bipartisan bills before if she disagrees with the policy. Opposition from cities across the state has figured into her previous decisions to reject legislation, and similar proposals to supersede local authority have met with her skepticism.
Still, fair housing advocates are hopeful some kind of compromise can be reached, conscious of the struggles everyday Arizonans deal with.
Carla Naranjo, an organizer with Unemployed Workers United, whose membership numbers in the thousands, urged lawmakers on Wednesday to work to mitigate the worsening issue.
“It should not be commonplace for families to be unable to afford rent and other basic necessities like groceries and utilities,” she said.
And for many, the housing landscape in Arizona is even more limited. Veronica Monge, co-president of the Poor People’s Campaign, showed up to represent the interests of mobile home residents, who have become a local symbol of the affordability crisis after the city of Phoenix refused to enact zoning changes and voted instead to evict three mobile home parks. Mobile homes, Monge said, are the last possible housing option and in a state of constantly climbing rents, mobile home residents, who are often among the most low-income, are left in the lurch.
That’s a grim reality 63-year-old Gloria Higuera, who lives in a mobile home, is conscious of. While she would like to move away from her abusive landlords, that simply isn’t financially feasible for her, and she dreads the day she’ll be forced to consider it.
“If I ever get evicted, it would be incredibly difficult to get an apartment or buy a house, because I don’t have the funds. I’m living day-to-day,” she said.
This report was first published by the Arizona Mirror.