Reforming a Century-Old Approach to Land Use: The Status of Local Zoning
The State of Local Zoning: Reforming a Century-Old Approach to Land Use
Advocates for statewide zoning reform are pushing for changes to antiquated rules governing land use in the United States in the face of a growing affordability crisis. Changes being implemented or considered include banning single-family-only zoning, allowing for multifamily housing in more places, reducing or eliminating costly minimum parking requirements, and lifting prohibitions on accessory dwelling units. Efforts to reform zoning have gained momentum and attracted supporters ranging from free market conservatives to progressives concerned about homelessness and racial segregation. The biggest driver of reform has been the lack of affordable housing, which is affecting the middle class and leading to homelessness. However, there is fierce political opposition at the local level, where land use decisions have historically been made by entrenched power structures. Successful implementation of statewide zoning reform may depend on convincing localities that targeted changes will be achievable and beneficial. Zoning is a 20th century phenomenon that emerged as a reaction to explosive urban growth and pollution, but it was also designed to control where immigrants and people of color could live.
The State of Local Zoning: Reforming a Century-Old Approach to Land Use
By Anthony Flint, December 23, 2022
Making the case that antiquated rules governing development in the United States are driving up housing prices amid a growing affordability crisis, advocates for statewide zoning reform are seeking to build on recent successes from California to Connecticut. But statewide mandates are encountering resistance from those defending local control of land use, a system that has prevailed for a century. While the rule changes being implemented or considered are at a technical level previously only familiar to urban planning professionals, they could have an outsized impact—and not just on the availability of housing. Zoning, its critics say, has also locked in racial segregation and perpetuated environmentally unsustainable land use patterns. The changes in question include banning single-family-only zoning; allowing multifamily housing in more places, including adjacent to transit stops; reducing or eliminating costly minimum parking requirements; and lifting prohibitions on accessory dwelling units (ADUs).
Efforts to reform zoning have gained momentum in part because the issue is surprisingly bipartisan, attracting supporters ranging from free market conservatives who favor streamlining government regulation to progressives concerned about homelessness and seeking to right racial wrongs. Not only blue states along the coasts, but others regarded as red, such as Utah, are engaged in some type of zoning reform. In Virginia, Republican Governor Glenn Youngkin has been speaking out against NIMBYism, the “not in my backyard” opposition by established residents to new housing development. To address the rising costs residents face, he said shortly after taking office in 2022, “we must tackle the root causes: unnecessary regulation, overburdensome and inefficient local governments, restrictive zoning policies, and an ideology of fighting tooth and nail against any new development.”
The biggest driver of reform has been the lack of affordable housing, which is wreaking havoc with local economies. Home prices rose more than 20 percent nationwide from March 2021 to March 2022. In June 2022, Realtor.com reported that rents in the country’s 50 largest metro areas had jumped 26.6 percent since 2019, the latest in a string of record increases. According to the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies, 30 percent of all U.S. households had unaffordable rent or mortgage payments in 2020, defined as exceeding 30 percent of monthly household income; a growing number of Americans spend half their income on housing. Workers often can’t live near their places of employment; outright homelessness is increasingly visible.
“Even people who are the beneficiaries of the California housing crisis, maybe folks who bought a home a few decades ago [and have seen their home values appreciate], they’re finding that their adult children can’t live within two or three hours of them. They’re finding that if they want to retire, they probably have to leave the state,” said M. Nolan Gray, author of Arbitrary Lines: How Zoning Broke the American City and How to Fix It. Whether in California or Utah, Gray said, residents are confronting similar “housing affordability issues that are affecting the middle class—and they’re looking for solutions.”
Still, the effort to apply new standards statewide is facing fierce political opposition at the local level, where land use decisions have historically been made, and where the right to set zoning has been heavily guarded since higher levels of government granted that power a century ago. The resistance warns against “imperialistic rezoning from state capitals,” in the words of one critic, framing the mandates aimed at increasing housing supply as inappropriate state preemption. Responding to those who oppose any change in local regulations for development, state lawmakers have watered down statewide reform efforts by adding opt-outs or removing penalties for noncompliance. In some cases, the stirrings of reform have been shut down entirely.
In Nebraska, a bill requiring municipalities with over 5,000 residents to allow fourplexes and other “missing middle” housing was replaced by a measure requiring only evidence that local jurisdictions were working on creating more affordable housing. (See our state-by-state guide to recent reforms in a dozen states.) In Massachusetts, the program known as MBTA Communities—signed by Republican Governor Charlie Baker in 2021—requires cities and towns to allow multifamily housing near transit stations by right, with a minimum density of 15 units per acre. But many communities have challenged that mandate—and have indicated they are prepared to do without the state funding that will be withheld if they don’t comply.
If the key to any public policy reform lies in implementation, that may be especially true with something as entrenched as local control over land use. States intent on reform must convince localities that changing zoning in targeted ways is achievable and will be beneficial. Technical assistance and education, facilitated by state agencies and nonprofit organizations, will help, said Massachusetts-based researcher Amy Dain, who has conducted research for the Lincoln Institute and has documented how suburban communities around Boston have erected a “paper wall” of bureaucracy that hobbles attempts by developers to build multifamily housing. In the case of the MBTA Communities act, she said, “the state is giving cities and towns lots of flexibility in deciding how to draw districts [of greater density] and how to write the requirements. It’s at the local level that the sites for transit-oriented multifamily housing development are selected and the dimensional requirements for new housing are established.” The success of statewide zoning reform in the future may well hinge on the promise of that kind of state-local collaboration.
THOUGH MANY CITIES have been masterfully planned and designed over the centuries, zoning is a 20th century phenomenon. The need for a framework of rules and regulations emerged as a reaction to explosive growth in U.S. cities after the turn of the century, concurrent with industrialization and the growth of manufacturing; massive immigration; and advances in technology, particularly in the transportation sector, including the streetcar, subway, and automobile.
The call for zoning was part of a progressive campaign to relieve congestion and to improve living conditions and public health—to make sure a tannery was not located right next door to a rooming house, for example. But it was also designed to control where immigrants and people of color could live. The first U.S. cities to create zoning included New York City and Berkeley, California, both circa 1916. In 1923, the Standard State Zoning Enabling Act provided model legislation states could adapt to grant municipalities the power to dictate land uses. Drafted by a Department of Commerce committee that had been assembled by Herbert Hoover and included Frederick Law Olmsted, the enabling act was adopted by all 50 states. The landmark 1926 Supreme Court case Euclid vs. Ambler Realty, which saw a realty company sue for the right to develop land across several newly implemented zoning districts in an Ohio town, affirmed that zoning was a local responsibility, and indeed a police power to reduce conflicts and improve public health.
The result was that more than 30,000 local governments developed their own regulation of land uses and structures, including allowable height, bulk, floor-to-area ratios, lot sizes, and setbacks. A common approach was separating commercial, industrial, and residential uses, designating parcels by category in multicolored zoning maps that are still in use to this day. On the residential side, zones for single-family homes, often on large lots, were most prevalent; areas set aside for multifamily housing, including even two-family structures, were much smaller, if they existed at all. Although communities used similar approaches, zoning became a highly decentralized system in which each jurisdiction developed particular rules in complicated formats. “Even for an expert, these zoning codes can be hard to read, and it’s nearly impossible to compare them to each other,” said Cornell University law professor Sara Bronin, who was part of a major zoning reform effort in Connecticut and is now leading the development of the National Zoning Atlas. That crowdsourced project is working to create a user-friendly, interactive zoning map of each state in the country.
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