How 3D Printing Could Fix the Housing Crisis

How 3D Printing Could Fix the Housing Crisis

A growing number of people have no home to call their own. As home prices rise in cities from coast to coast — in massive metros like Los Angeles to New York and once-affordable cities in the Midwest like Boise and Grand Rapids — young couples are downsizing the American dream. Among advocates and policymakers, there’s a growing consensus that housing ought to come first in the fight to end homelessness, but America’s stock of affordable housing is dwindling, and many homeless people are left aging and catching “Medieval diseases” on our city streets. It might seem surprising, but technologies like 3D-printing could be a solution —keeping Americans off city streets, and solving the affordable housing crisis. But government regulations are getting in the way.

Right now, there simply isn’t enough affordable housing in America for those demanding it. A recently released a report from the nonprofit Up For Growth on housing underproduction found that, between 2000 and 2015, the U.S. produced 7.3 million fewer homes than it needed to keep up with population growth and consumer demand. In 2015, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development reported that there were only 62 affordable rental homes for every 100 “very low-income” households, and a meager 38 affordable homes for every 100 households with “extremely low incomes.” Whether you need an affordable home or rental, there’s a shortage in the supply.

3D-printing has the potential to meet the demand. One company, ICON, is using trailblazing 3D printing technology to provide cost-effective, beautiful, and safe homes — homes that cost under $10,000 and can be constructed in under 24 hours. The ICON model showcased at the 2018 South By Southwest festival is 650 square feet and consists of a living room, kitchen, bedroom, bathroom, and shaded porch that combine to offer consumers chic digs. And, at 650 square feet, these houses reduce Americans’ carbon footprints.

ICON is one of many companies attempting to deploy 3D-printing in solving the affordable housing crisis and fighting homelessness. Yet these companies confront a persistent and pernicious obstacle in zoning laws. In Austin, Texas, housing industry expert Eldon Rude noted the challenge ICON faces in “obtaining the necessary zoning and entitlements to build these [3D-printed] homes.” S-Squared 3D Printers in Patchogue, New York, weren’t even able “to test-print an entire home due to zoning and building requirements in the village.” While American policymakers and zoning administrators quibble about whether or not 3D-printed 650 square foot homes should be allowed in their communities, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) is planning a 3D-printed skyscraper. Countries like the UAE will happily take the lead in developing this technology if America does not.

To be clear, regulation of some kind is obviously necessary, but it must be reduced and simplified. For example, scholars at libertarian think tank the Mercatus Center argue that a key to economic revival in Scranton, Pennsylvania, is a citywide policy of “permissionless innovation,” or a regulatory openness to novel business models and technologies. Communities both large and small should reassess their zoning rules, land-use regulations, and permitting requirements with the aim of encouraging innovative construction methods and housing ventures rather barring them.  

3D printing has the potential to increase the number of affordable houses in America, and quickly, too. Permitting businesses to experiment with new, affordable construction methods and housing ventures will result in more affordable homes and more housed Americans. This is not the kind of grand plan we are prone to seek in politics, but it is a strong step toward increasing Americans’ access to affordable housing. If Americans are serious about curbing the affordable housing crisis, they should lobby their local governments to simplify and revise their zoning laws to allow for 3D-printing in construction. The millions of Americans looking for affordable, dignified homes cannot wait any longer.

Jacob Bruggeman is a Young Voices contributor and a Joanna Jackson Goldman Scholar at Miami University, where he studies history and political science.  He is also the Associate Editor of the Cleveland Review of Books and Editor-in-Chief of The New Herald.

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