In ‘warfare against renters,’ homeowners fight affordable housing push

Efforts to build more lower-cost housing after a surge in rents and home prices have been met with growing opposition from homeowners across the country.

Apartment projects in areas dealing with housing shortages have prompted fights from homeowners.Leila Register / NBC News; Getty Images
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At a packed City Hall meeting, one resident after another stood before the City Council of the suburban Phoenix city of Surprise pleading with officials to block the construction of an apartment complex for seniors and lower-income renters — shouting, heckling and arguing about crime and traffic congestion.  

In the crowd was Nate Pomeroy, a leader in the effort to block the apartment complex. He moved to Surprise in 2018 from Scottsdale after years in California to retire and expected it would be the last home he’d live in.

Now, he’s not sure he’ll stay. He worries the apartment complex will increase traffic and change the character of the area, which is made up of sprawling subdivisions of Spanish-style homes selling for $500,000 to $700,000.  

The heated debate in Surprise, population 150,000, is being echoed in large and small communities across the country as local officials have pushed to increase the housing supply with small backyard bungalows to subsidized apartment complexes in response to surging rents and home prices since the start of the coronavirus pandemic.  

“It’s just going to turn this into a very high-density area. It’s going to really change the look and feel of where we are, and people aren’t happy about it,” Pomeroy said. “The City Council and city management have not listened effectively. They’re going to build and build and build, and it’s no longer going to be the last place I live.”

Vocal groups of homeowners say they are fearful of what the changes could mean for their communities. Increasingly, they are fighting back with lawsuits, referendums, appeals to state representatives and recall elections in a battle to stave off multifamily housing in their largely suburban neighborhoods.

“It’s the same buzzwords no matter where you are. Some are more veiled than others as far as whether they will flat-out say that renters are second-class citizens,” said Owen Metz, a senior vice president at Dominium, an affordable housing developer that is working on the proposed apartment complex in Surprise. “It’s not everywhere, but there seems to be this growing warfare against renters.”

Homeowners have long put up fights against new developments — the acronym NIMBY, or "not in my backyard," has been in use for decades — but the battles have grown louder in recent years amid a wave of apartment construction stretching outside of city centers. The debates have also taken on new urgency as surging home prices drive out middle-class workers and lead to an uptick in homelessness, affordable housing advocates said. 

For the past 15 years, the rate at which new homes and apartments are being built has failed to keep up with the demand, in part because of the lingering effects of the 2008 housing market crash, said Jeff Tucker, a senior economist at Zillow, which estimates the U.S. has a shortage of more than 4 million homes.

Awais Azhar, a housing advocate in Austin, Texas, who is a member of the city’s Planning Commission, said: “That cost pressure that was being felt by coastal cities has now traveled to our suburbs. It’s traveled to our rural areas. Affordability is truly a United States crisis. There is a lot of pressure and angst from local advocates and leaders, because while unaffordability has been an issue for a while, we’ve just never seen this level of crisis in the way we’re seeing it now.”

The housing shortage was aggravated during the pandemic when remote work and the desire for more space led to a population shift toward less densely packed suburban areas and relatively lower-cost states, like Texas, Arizona and Colorado. In turn, home prices have risen more than 30% and rents are up more than 25% nationwide since 2020.

The Phoenix area has experienced some of the biggest housing cost increases in the country, with rents up 41% since the start of 2020 and home prices up more than 50%, according to Zillow. At the same time, homelessness in the region has increased 36%.

In Surprise, an outer-lying suburb of Phoenix backed up against the desert, residents have been fighting the city and the developer for more than a year, first with an attempt to get the project on the election ballot and then in court.

At the center of the fight are 388 apartments for people with incomes up to $39,300 for individuals and $56,100 for families of four with rents that would range from $1,052 for one bedroom to $1,458 for three bedrooms. The proposed development, on what was once a ranch, would also include 211 units of housing for seniors. 

City officials supporting the development said it could help provide housing to workers essential to the community, like teachers making an average salary of $42,000.

The project would be financed by a federal low-income housing tax credit that would offset some of the costs and enable the developer to offer below-market rents. Unlike government-owned and -operated public housing projects built for lower-income residents decades ago, the vast majority of affordable housing built today is owned and managed by private developers using the tax credit. 

Pomeroy said he understands the need for more affordable housing in Surprise and knows more development is inevitable in his neighborhood. But he doesn’t believe the project fits with the “look and feel” of the area and questions whether there is the road and water infrastructure to handle that many new residents.

“We’re not necessarily against affordable housing. We get this is politically very unpopular, because as soon as you talk about that the liberal locals, the media, etc., will label us as NIMBYs,” he said. “So now all of a sudden we’re back on our heels going ‘Wait a minute, we’re not bad people,’ and then they just shout you down and all that garbage.”

Homeowners are mounting opposition not just to housing that would provide below-market rents but to any attempt by city officials and developers to increase housing supply by building multifamily projects, whether they are large apartment complexes or smaller duplexes, in areas now dominated by single-family homes.

In Austin, residents sued to block the city from updating its land code to allow for more apartment buildings and multifamily projects — significantly slowing down a much-needed increase to the city's housing supply, Azhar said. Average rents in the Austin area have increased 28% and the sale price of a home has increased nearly 50% since the start of 2020, according to data from Zillow. 

In Colorado, an effort by Democratic Gov. Jared Polis to spur creation of more multifamily housing units statewide failed this year, and residents have continued to push back at the local level.

In the Denver suburb of Englewood, residents are seeking to recall the mayor and several City Council members over their support for more multifamily housing, including changes that would allow people to build smaller homes on their properties called accessory dwelling units, said Kurt Suppes, who is organizing the recall.

“All these people that bought these homes all these years ago are now suddenly facing huge changes in their neighborhoods and the potential loss of a whole lot of the equity that they have in their homes,” said Suppes, who has lived in his home in Englewood for 40 years. “Nobody is going to want to buy your house except the developers.”

New York Gov. Kathy Hochul recently backed off a statewide strategy to build 800,000 homes over the next decade that would have included increasing development in New York City’s suburbs after swift bipartisan opposition from members of the state Legislature. 

The debate has also been playing out in Washington. President Joe Biden has urged the construction of more affordable housing, having released a plan last year to provide incentives for states and cities to build hundreds of thousands of affordable housing units over the next three years. That’s in contrast with former President Donald Trump, who repeatedly warned while he was in office that Democrats would destroy the suburbs with low-income housing that would bring crime and reduce home values.

The resistance from homeowners and elected officials has caused developers to abandon projects and slowed construction, in some cases adding a year or more to projects’ timelines, said Dan Klocke, a project development manager with the affordable housing builder Gorman & Co. It has also caused developers to avoid undertaking projects in some cities that have mounted past opposition, he said. 

“The risks are high. All of that added time for not just one project but for hundreds of projects slows down the amount of housing that you build over time in your state,” Klocke said. "When you continue to do that in project after project, you build far fewer housing units, and it’s basic supply and demand. The less supply, the higher the demand, the higher the price. Then, there goes your affordability.”

While residents have so far been unable to stop the development in Surprise, opposition from residents and a lack of support from city officials in nearby Buckeye contributed to the same developer’s decision to cancel plans to build 300 subsidized apartment units in the city, Metz said. 

Local officials said they saw an unprecedented level of opposition from residents, who raised fears about crime to water shortages.

“I don’t think I have gotten more complaints about a specific project than that project. Our inboxes were just full,” Mayor Eric Orsborn said.

Like Surprise, Buckeye sits at the edge of the desert in the outer ring of metropolitan Phoenix, and its population has ballooned, too. In 2000, it had just 6,500 residents, half of them inmates at the local prison, and it now has a population of more than 100,000, Orsborn said. 

But more large-scale housing projects are inevitable for the community given the pace of growth, and they are something residents are going to have to learn to accept, Buckeye City Council member Clay Goodman said. 

“You can’t shut the door after you get here,” Goodman said. “There’s a whole bunch of growth that’s coming, and as a council, we’re trying to do it the right way.”