Environmental regulations once again impede housing construction

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President Joe Biden doesn’t have many good ideas, but his decision to use an existing Department of Transportation program to fund the conversion of office space into apartment buildings is a good one.

Unfortunately, the party’s refusal to work with Republicans on long-overdue reforms to onerous environmental regulations has made it impossible to complete construction projects, stalled downtowns, and driven up rents.

Downtowns in cities across the U.S. were struggling long before the coronavirus, but the pandemic accelerated the shift to remote work and left many inner-city office buildings vacant. Some cities are struggling with crime in the aftermath of the George Floyd riots, while others have maintained law and order and remain great places to live. So desirable that rents are often higher than average starting salaries in cities with the most active job markets.

One simple solution to the lack of affordable housing in urban areas is to convert vacant office buildings into residential apartments. These buildings are already zoned appropriately for height and simply require funding to be demolished and renovated for residential use.

Enter the Department of Transportation’s Transportation Infrastructure Financing and Innovation Act and Railroad Repair and Improvement Loan Program. These loan programs are typically used to finance rail infrastructure, but the underlying statute also allows construction projects as long as they are within one mile of a rail station. Many vacant office buildings fit that description, including his 44-story Gulf Tower in Pittsburgh, just one block from Union Station.

The owners of the half-empty Gulf Towers had hoped to leverage Department of Transportation funding to convert office space into residential space, but the project, which would involve federal agency action, would fall under the buzzsaw of the National Environmental Policy Act. I immediately realized that it was in conflict.

Passed in 1970, NEPA requires that all federally funded projects first undergo an environmental assessment. This sounds like common sense. But NEPA also includes strong citizen action provisions that allow almost anyone to sue in federal court to delay projects.

Environmentalists quickly learned how to use this to their advantage to block the construction of any project they opposed, including housing projects. Even without a lawsuit, the average NEPA review would take him more than four and a half years and cost him $4.2 million to avoid all necessary legal proceedings.

“A typical real estate financing transaction will close in 60 to 90 days,” said Aaron Stauber, president of the company that owns Gulf Towers. In other words, the time and money created by NEPA drains funding from federal agencies.

Click here to read the full Washington Examiner article

Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT), Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), and Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-ND) have advocated limiting such lawsuits and limiting the length of time federal agencies operate. Introduced common sense legislation that would streamline the NEPA process by setting deadlines. Expenditures must be made in accordance with NEPA planning rules. However, the Democratic Party rejected these efforts outright.

Thanks to Bidenflation, housing affordability is at an all-time high. This country needs more housing. We have a lot. If only Democrats would work with Republicans to reform NEPA, they could build housing for so many more people.

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