The arguments for and against banning zoning for only single-family homes

The single-family home is very important in the United States and this is enshrined in land use policy and zoning. Because of this, there is a move in multiple communities to ban single-family home zoning and this has prompted debate over the change:

Photo by David McBee on Pexels.com

Originally introduced in Berkeley, Calif., in 1916 as a means of preventing a black-owned dance hall from opening, single-family zoning became increasingly popular — though divorced from its explicitly racist origins — as more Amercans moved to sprawling suburban cities across the country. Today, many of the country’s major urban areas reserve 75 percent or more of their residential land exclusively for stand-alone, one-family homes.

Recently, lawmakers in blue states and cities have moved to roll back zoning rules in hopes of spurring more development. Minneapolis became the first major city to ban single-family zoning in 2019. That same year, Oregon passed a similar law statewide. Perhaps the most significant change came in California where the median home price is estimated to exceed $800,000. A new law that eliminates single-family zoning across the entire state went into effect on Jan. 1. None of these reforms make it illegal or even more difficult to build a stand-alone house, they simply remove barriers that prevent any other type of dwelling from being built.

Advocates for eliminating single-family zoning say it’s the most important step toward addressing the housing shortage, since any other programs to spur more development would be moot if there’s no land to legally build on. Supporters say eliminating what they often refer to exclusionary zoning would have wide-ranging benefits beyond just creating more housing stock, including reducing racial segregation and closing the racial wealth gap, boosting job opportunities in urban areas and reducing climate impacts created by suburban sprawl.

Many conservative opponents of these reforms, including former President Donald Trump, have portrayed them as a “war on the suburbs” that would bring big-city problems to quiet communities while doing little to address the underlying causes of the housing shortage. Some argue that financial incentives, not coercive new laws, are the best way to spur development.

A lot of pro-housing advocates also have doubts about how much of an impact zoning reforms on their own will make. They argue that most of the new laws are riddled with exceptions that limit their scope and few also address the long list of other ways that local governments can prevent dense housing from being built — like minimum lot sizes and parking requirements. Some on the left make the case that the only way to increase housing supply at the pace that’s necessary is through strict mandates that require cities to build a certain number of housing units and impose heavy financial penalties on those that don’t.

This would be a hard change to make and capitalize on in many communities. Housing policy in the United States is difficult to change and is rooted in a long history, cultural narratives about success, exclusionary practices, and local governments and other government actors. Yet, even discussion of such a change at least highlights the need in many places to think more about housing and how it could be more accessible to many.

As about any policy possibilities in the United States, I now wonder if what would work best in this situation is for several different kinds of communities across the country to ban single-family zoning and see what happens. What changes in the community? How do residents and newcomers experience it? How does it affect housing values? Does it significantly alter the character of the community? And if there are success stories – which could range from limited noticeable change (that it does not lead to negative outcomes or the end of the suburbs might be good enough) to positive outcomes – then other communities could observe and consider the option.

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