A Swing Constituency Could Help Allow More Homes

Survey indicates which respondents favor only certain zoning reforms

Navigate to:

A Swing Constituency Could Help Allow More Homes
DenisTangneyJr Getty Images

A housing shortage estimated at 4 million to 7 million homes is driving up rents, prices, and homelessness nationwide, spurring cities, towns, and increasingly states to consider passing laws to allow more housing. Many of these efforts are gaining broad acceptance, but others face more resistance. Why? A survey conducted for The Pew Charitable Trusts provides some insights.

A sizeable group supports allowing more apartments in commercial or transit areas but only small changes—such as accessory dwelling units—in single-family areas rather than allowing several homes on each lot. The survey results help to illuminate which changes allowing more homes are more popular with this swing group of respondents than others.

Pew’s survey asked about 10 reforms that have been enacted in different locations and found large majorities supporting most of them. But there was wide variation between the most and least popular reforms, ranging from 86% to 49%. This analysis looks at who the people are who favored several of the more popular reforms but opposed those that earned lower levels of support. As policymakers weigh various options that have been proven to boost housing and improve affordability, it’s helpful to understand where this group of constituents stands.

The nationally representative survey of 5,051 Americans was conducted by Ipsos with its online panel from Sept. 8-17, 2023. And it had enough participants to allow researchers to cut the results in a number of different ways.

One reform already enacted in six states and more cities has been to allow multiple homes per lot; for example, duplexes, triplexes, or fourplexes. This change promotes affordability because such housing costs less than single-family homes. It also uses land more efficiently and carries financial benefits such as enabling lower property taxes and more economic activity because customers and potential employees can live near commerce and work. The additional housing tends to be built slowly, adding incrementally to the housing stock. And two- to four-family homes largely maintain a neighborhood’s aesthetic because they look like single-family ones. A clear majority of the public (58%) supports allowing multiple homes per lot, but it has still faced some opposition.

Another reform, allowing more apartments near transit and job centers, has also been implemented by a range of cities, with strong success in improving affordability and economic vitality. Though there are opponents of this approach too, an overwhelming 80% of the public supports it.

In the survey, 30% of respondents (nearly 1,500 people) supported allowing more apartments near transit and job centers but not allowing multiple homes per lot. Such locations are plentiful in both cities and many suburbs. This group illustrates a trend in the data: Reforms that would add housing that is not part of existing single-family blocks received very strong support, while those that would add housing in single-family areas were popular, but less so.

This 30% appears to be a swing constituency in support for more housing. This group favors some specific proposals to add more homes but opposes others. In short, they are neither consistently in the NIMBY (not in my backyard) nor YIMBY (yes in my backyard) camps. But the group is demographically distinct from the general public in several ways: It is disproportionately composed of people who are homeowners, at least age 50, White, with a college or graduate degree, and slightly more likely to live in the suburbs.

Three-quarters of the public supports allowing more apartments in commercial areas used primarily for stores, restaurants, and offices. Such areas exist in all cities and most suburbs and towns, including those without transit centers. About a quarter (26%) support that reform but not multiple homes per lot in areas zoned single-family. This group shows the same demographic characteristics as the first. More than 7 in 10 (72% of respondents) support allowing accessory dwelling units (a basement, garage, or backyard apartment) on single-family lots, and 23% of the public supports that reform but not otherwise allowing multiple homes on single-family lots, such as town houses or fourplexes.

Table 1

Older Homeowners Comprise Large Share of Housing Swing Constituency

Demographic share of population, by housing views

Group Suburban Rural College+ Own 50+ White Female
Survey population 48% 17% 35% 71% 47% 62% 51%
Support apartments near job centers and transit, oppose “plexes” 51%** 18% 46%** 84%** 59%** 75%** 51%
Support apartments in commercial areas, oppose “plexes” 51%** 17% 45%** 82%** 58%** 76%** 50%
Support accessory dwelling units, oppose “plexes” 48% 20% 41%** 80%** 55%** 74%** 54%
Notes: The full survey consisted of a nationally representative sample of 5,051 Americans. It includes 1,494 people who favor allowing more apartments near transit and job centers but oppose plexes (multiple homes per lot); 1,330 people who support allowing more apartments in commercial areas but oppose plexes; and 1,163 people who support allowing accessory dwelling units on single-family lots but oppose plexes. There is substantial overlap between these groups. Differences from the full survey population that are statistically significant at the .05 level indicated with **. Full question wording is available for download.

The survey asked about potential reasons to allow more homes. The most popular reasons chosen overall were to make housing more affordable (82%), to allow people to move closer to jobs and schools (79%), and to allow more people to live near offices, commerce, and transit (77%). Those were also the top reasons for these swing groups, with similar views as the public overall. That indicates that even though some messaging is more popular, the same messages resonate with swing constituencies as the public overall, even though their preference for new housing being located near commerce or transit is clear.

Table 2

Swing Constituency Views Affordability, Proximity as Strong Reasons to Allow More Homes

Share of each group saying each reason is an excellent or good one to allow more homes

Group Improve affordability Live near jobs and schools Live near commerce and transit
All adults 82% 79% 77%
Favor accessory dwelling units, oppose “plexes” 81% 78% 74%
Favor transit-oriented development, oppose “plexes” 79%** 77% 77%
Favor mixed-use, oppose “plexes” 80% 77% 78%
Notes: The full survey consisted of a nationally representative sample of 5,051 Americans. It includes 1,494 people who favor allowing more apartments near transit and job centers but oppose plexes (multiple homes per lot); 1,330 people who support allowing more apartments in commercial areas but oppose plexes; and 1,163 people who support allowing accessory dwelling units on single-family lots but oppose plexes. Differences from the full survey population that are statistically significant at the .05 level indicated with **. Full question wording is available for download.

In the long term, there is strong evidence that many ways of allowing more homes are effective in improving affordability and achieving other goals. Palisades Park, New Jersey, is an example of a community where duplexes have been the primary mechanism for that. Allowing duplexes enabled more commerce and economic activity, which improved the tax base and has kept residential property taxes there lower than surrounding towns. In Houston, meanwhile, allowing more town houses has been effective. Accessory dwelling units are making a dent in California’s dire housing shortage and are often affordable to those earning below-average incomes.

These reforms are beneficial and effective but take time before they add substantial numbers of new homes, and they have often faced opposition. The jurisdictions that have rapidly and substantially improved affordability recently have made it easy to build apartments, usually near commerce and transit. Survey data shows that the public supports those efforts, even including a segment that opposes some of the other tested reforms.

Alex Horowitz is a project director and Gabe Kravitz is a manager at The Pew Charitable Trusts’ housing policy initiative.

National Homeownership Month

Article

37 Researchers Working to Transform Biomedical Science

Quick View
Article

Biomedical researchers are on the front lines of scientific innovation. From responding to global pandemics to pioneering lifesaving cancer treatments, these researchers push past scientific boundaries to solve pressing health challenges. For nearly 40 years, The Pew Charitable Trusts has supported more than 1,000 early-career biomedical scientists committed to this discovery.

Article

Homeowners and Renters Back Housing Reforms

Quick View
Article

Households throughout the country, particularly those with the lowest incomes, are struggling with the high cost of housing because of decades of underbuilding, high construction costs, and the resulting shortage of homes for sale and for rent, all combined with inadequately funded housing assistance.

Article

Survey Finds Majority Favor Policies to Enable More Housing

Quick View
Article

Most Americans support a roster of zoning policies intended to boost housing availability and affordability, according to a nationally representative survey conducted in September for The Pew Charitable Trusts.

Article

Promoting More Housing Crosses Geographic Lines

Quick View
Article

As the nation copes with a housing shortage estimated at 4 million to 7 million homes and how that has driven housing costs to all-time highs, states and cities are considering steps to encourage development of more and lower-cost housing. And a national survey released in late 2023 shows strong public support for 10 policies that have been enacted by various states or localities to do that.

Composite image of modern city network communication concept

Learn the Basics of Broadband from Our Limited Series

Sign up for our four-week email course on Broadband Basics

Quick View

How does broadband internet reach our homes, phones, and tablets? What kind of infrastructure connects us all together? What are the major barriers to broadband access for American communities?

Pills illustration
Pills illustration

What Is Antibiotic Resistance—and How Can We Fight It?

Sign up for our four-week email series The Race Against Resistance.

Quick View

Antibiotic-resistant bacteria, also known as “superbugs,” are a major threat to modern medicine. But how does resistance work, and what can we do to slow the spread? Read personal stories, expert accounts, and more for the answers to those questions in our four-week email series: Slowing Superbugs.