Abolish Zoning—All of It

“It’s time for America to move beyond zoning.

At surface level, zoning is an impossibly boring topic, even by the terms of public policy debate. The mere thought of a weeknight zoning hearing or a 700-page zoning ordinance is enough to make even the most enthusiastic policy wonk’s eyes glaze over. Until recently, zoning might have been blithely dismissed as a mere technical matter, simply a way of rationalizing our cities, a planning policy so obvious as to be beyond reproach.

But zoning is at once so much less and so much more. While occasionally used as a stand-in for city planning or building regulations more broadly, its scope is far more limited: At a basic level, all zoning does is segregate land uses and regulate densities. Your local zoning ordinance sets out various districts, each with detailed land use and density rules, while an associated local zoning map establishes where these rules apply. The bread and butter of what most people think of as city planning—such as street planning or building regulations—has almost nothing to do with zoning.

Yet from these seemingly innocuous zoning rules have emerged a set of endlessly detailed parameters controlling virtually every facet of American life. Arbitrary lines on zoning maps determine where you can live by way of allowing housing to be built here but not there. Through a dizzying array of confusing and pseudoscientific rules, from “floor area ratio” restrictions to setback mandates, zoning serves to heavily restrict the amount of housing that may be built in any given neighborhood and the form it may take. In most major cities, zoning restricts roughly three-quarters of the city to low-slung, single-family housing, banning apartments altogether.

The combined effect is that, in already built-out cities, zoning makes it prohibitively difficult to build more housing. As a result of the further tightening of zoning restrictions beginning in the 1970s, median housing prices have dramatically outpaced median incomes in many parts of the country over the past half-century, such that millions of Americans now struggle to make rent or pay their mortgage each month. That is if they have the luxury of having a stable home at all: In places where demand for new housing is especially high—as in cities like New York and Los Angeles—zoning restrictions have facilitated acute housing shortages, with attendant surges in displacement and homelessness. The COVID-19 pandemic has only expedited these trends, with home prices in 2020 rising at the fastest rate since 1979.

The arbitrary restrictions that zoning places on cities also show up in our capacity to grow and innovate as a nation. By severely limiting new housing production in a handful of our most productive cities—including San Jose and Boston—we have made moving to our most prosperous regions a dubious proposition. Your income might double if you were to move from Orlando to San Francisco, but your housing costs would quadruple. Should we be surprised that many people are turning down that deal? For the first time in history, Americans are systematically moving from high-productivity cities to low-productivity cities, in no small part because these are the only places where zoning allows housing to be built. According to the 2020 census, the population of California—one of our most productive and innovative states—is now basically stagnant, such that the Golden State will be losing a congressional seat for the first time in its 170-year history.

The downstream economic implications of this unprecedented reversal of historic trends are hard to overstate. After all, big cities make us more productive, in that they allow us to find a job perfectly suited to our talents and exchange ideas with colleagues working on the same issues. They provide a platform for individuals to experiment and innovate, nursing the young firms that go on to remake the American economy every few decades. To the extent that zoning has made it exponentially more difficult for Americans to move to these hubs of activity—for a software engineer to relocate to San Jose or for a medical researcher to relocate to Boston—we are all poorer as a result.”

“zoning makes more environmentally friendly forms of urban growth effectively illegal. By banning developers from building up, zoning forces them to build out.”

“zoning assumes universal car ownership and all the emissions and traffic violence this entails.”

“zoning isn’t merely a good policy misapplied toward selfish ends. Zoning is a fundamentally flawed policy that deserves to be abolished. Set aside for a moment the debilitating local housing shortages, the stunted growth and innovation, the persistent racial and economic segregation, and the ever-expanding sprawl: The very concept of zoning—the idea that state planners can rationally separate land uses and efficiently allocate density—has repeatedly failed to materialize. Far from the fantastical device imagined by early 20th-century planners, zoning today has little to do with managing traditional externalities and works largely untethered from any guiding comprehensive plan.”

“Cities found ways to separate noxious uses and manage growth for thousands of years before the arrival of zoning, and they can do the same after zoning. Indeed, some American cities—including Houston, America’s fourth-largest city—already make land use planning work without zoning. To the extent that zoning has failed to address even our most basic concerns about urban growth over the past century, it’s incumbent on our generation to rekindle this lost wisdom and undertake the project of building out a new way of planning the American city.”

“the fact that zoning is only now turning 100 might speak to the fact that we shouldn’t take it for granted. A 100th anniversary is as good a time as any for a reevaluation”

“Zoning is not only ineffective in achieving its stated goals—it’s also unnecessary. In our focus on drawing district boundaries or listing out permitted uses, we have lost touch with the innumerable ways that cities organize themselves, from the natural use separation helped along by land markets to the bottom-up agreements formed by neighbors. Where these institutions fail, a robust set of impact regulations for new development and a civil service committed to managing—rather than stalling—growth would do a far better job than zoning at keeping neighbors happy and quality of life up. Now is the time to rediscover these lost traditions and start planning for what comes after zoning.”

Eliminating Single-Family Zoning Isn’t the Reason Minneapolis Is a YIMBY Success Story

“Housing production is up, and rents do indeed appear to be falling. But the effects of Minneapolis’ particular means of eliminating single-family-only zoning, and allowing up to triplexes on residential land citywide, have been exceedingly modest.

Newly legal triplexes and duplexes make up a tiny fraction of new homes being built. Other less headline-grabbing reforms appear to be doing the Lord’s work of boosting housing production.”

“Wittenberg credits the city’s elimination of parking minimums—which had typically required one parking spot per housing unit—with facilitating increased construction of smaller apartment buildings.

The city has been chipping away at residential parking minimums since 2009. The Minneapolis 2040 plan eliminated them entirely. (The city has also adopted some rather un-free market parking policies, including parking maximums in some areas and bike parking minimums.)

Data culled by Wittenberg, and shared with Reason, shows that 19 major projects have been approved by Minneapolis’ Planning Commission since parking minimums were eliminated. The median project provided .42 residential parking spaces per unit, with smaller apartment buildings typically including even less parking.

“For site constraint reasons and economic reasons, it would have been hard to park those buildings at one parking space per unit,” he says. “We’re pretty clearly seeing that is making a significant difference.”

In January 2021, Minneapolis also implemented additional parts of the 2040 Minneapolis comprehensive plan that allows for larger, denser apartment buildings in more of the city, particularly along commercial corridors and near public transit stops. That’s also helped facilitate more development, says Wittenberg.

Flisrand, on Twitter, argues that the fight over eliminating single-family-zoning sucked up most of the attention in the Minneapolis 2040 debate, thus paving the way for more impactful policies like parking minimum elimination and commercial corridor upzoning.”

“One also doesn’t want to learn the wrong lesson that eliminating single-family zoning is the only supply increasing reform cities need to adopt.

There’s a certain current of thought on the political left—represented most prominently by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D–N.Y.)—that supports eliminating single-family zoning in wealthy neighborhoods while also expressing extreme skepticism of denser private, market-rate development elsewhere in the city

But legalizing the latter type of development, at least in Minneapolis’s experience, appears to go a lot farther in actually producing more housing units and holding down rents.

More and more jurisdictions across the country are catching on to the fact that their zoning laws are strangling housing production and driving up housing costs, and moving to make changes.”

Zoning Officials Stop Church From Opening 40-Bed Shelter in Sub-Zero Temperatures

“roughly 80 homeless people who live in the upstate community, and who have few options for escaping the dangerously frigid weather.

About half of those people could be housed on the second floor of a building owned by the city’s Free Methodist Church, where 40 empty beds sit ready to welcome people in from the cold.

Stopping that from happening are Gloversville’s zoning officials, who say that the commercial zoning of the church’s property and its downtown location prohibit it from hosting a cold weather shelter. Those empty beds will have to stay that way.

“The situation is dire up here and the city just refuses to let us open,” says Richard Wilkinson, the pastor of Gloversville’s Free Methodist Church. “It’s heartbreaking knowing there’s people out there.””

Antiquated Zoning Laws Are Worsening the Housing Crisis

“California’s median home prices have just topped $800,000, which is astounding when one considers that this is the statewide median, and includes lower-cost markets such as Bakersfield and Modesto.”

“In 2015, the Legislative Analyst’s Office reported that California’s housing prices are 2.5 times the national average—and that we need 100,000 more units a year to keep pace. The state’s slow-growth rules and endless mandates for solar energy and open space also drive up prices. That’s why I beat the same old drum: California needs to let builders construct more housing of all types.
If a proposal reduces government regulations and allows more housing construction, I’m for it. If it does the reverse, I’m against it. That’s why I support efforts to allow the construction of multi-family housing in areas that are now zoned only for single-family homes. Despite the misconception, that change doesn’t ban single-family homes, but also allows duplexes and condos.”

“The goal should be to reduce regulations across the board, so builders can more easily respond to market demand by building whatever consumers want to buy. Defending antiquated zoning laws will not accomplish that objective, for the same reason government control of any product or service only distorts the supply and demand process.

Remember that as you get in a bidding war for that $1-million 800-square-foot condo.”

Is there a housing bubble?

“There aren’t enough homes to meet the demand for would-be homeowners, and there aren’t enough homes to meet the demand for renters. The US needs to build enough housing to support the number of people who need a place to live. And to do that, it needs to change local zoning laws that seek to prop up current homeowners’ investments by preventing more dense housing from being built. If it doesn’t, prices will continue to rise.”

“The biggest concern is that when you want to move to a new job, there might not be a house to buy or a place to rent for you and your family. That when your kids grow up, there will be zero homes available nearby for them to live in. That when your parents want to downsize, or are unable to afford their mortgage on a fixed income during retirement, they’ll be forced to move out of their community because there are no available places to live.

This is a crisis of our own making. The housing frenzy that accompanies the current moment is a byproduct of turning an asset that could be widely available into a scarce one. It’s up to local, state, and federal authorities to reverse that trend quickly or face the consequences.”

Can’t Afford Your Rent? Blame Herbert Hoover.

“At the beginning of the 20th century, there were virtually no zoning laws in the United States. By 1921, zoning had come to 48 large U.S. cities, representing a fifth of the country’s population. By 1932, 1,165 municipal governments had adopted zoning, covering more than two-thirds of the urban population. By 1968, nearly every metropolitan government had zoning, as did large swaths of rural America.

It was a revolution, and a rapid one. Property owners were once allowed to use their land for the most profitable or desirable use: live on it, sell it to a commercial or industrial business, sell it to a developer. Now nearly every municipality has rules that dictate how a piece of land can be used and what kinds of housing, if any, are allowed on it.

This wasn’t a spontaneous shift: The federal government made a concerted effort to promote the comprehensive regulation of local land use through zoning. That hasn’t just meant a decline in Americans’ liberties. It has meant sharp increases in the cost of housing and a country much more segregated by class and race.

Zoning arose at a time of rapid urbanization: The percentage of Americans living in urban areas jumped from 14 percent in 1880 to 54 percent in 1920. One source of this swelling was the Great Migration of African Americans out of the South and into Northern cities. Another was the large-scale migration of Eastern and Southern Europeans to the United States: The foreign-born share of American residents peaked at 15 percent around 1920.”

“In 1920, native-born whites were much more likely to be homeowners than were immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe, or Hispanics, or Asians, or African Americans. So zoning laws prioritized the single-family detached home and sought to isolate it from multifamily housing and from commerce. Robert Whitten, an early zoning leader who consulted around the country, was explicit about this. When Atlanta hired him to develop the city’s zoning statutes in 1922, Whitten tried to prohibit black people from living in white neighborhoods, even though the U.S. Supreme Court had struck down such laws in 1917.

More broadly, Whitten argued that even one apartment sends a community of single-family homes down a slippery slope of devaluation. His views were influential: He co-authored the New York City Planning Resolution, adopted in 1916, which the 1968 Douglas Commission—a working group charged with reporting to Congress about urban problems—later cited as setting “the basic pattern for zoning ordinances to this day.” That law attempted to curb the mixed use of land (combining businesses and residences) practiced by the city’s recent immigrants.”

“I don’t want to suggest that zoning has had no positive effects. It has helped improve the quality and safety of housing. It has made it easier to link housing developments to roads, water, sewage pipes, and other infrastructure. It has certainly accomplished its goals of stabilizing property values and helping families keep away from factories, nightclubs, and garbage dumps. It may not be the only way to achieve such ends, but it has achieved them.
Yet zoning has failed by the most obvious and measurable metric: It has made housing far less affordable.

Zoning, by its nature, restricts the supply of housing. Where prices exceed construction and renovation costs, as they do now throughout the country, developers have a strong incentive to build more units on each acre of existing land. Zoning forbids this in all but the small areas set aside for multifamily housing.”

“The United States stands out as having the largest gap between rich and poor in neighborhood quality among rich democracies. Using Gallup World Poll data from 2009–2017, I was able to calculate the percentage of people in each country who rate their neighborhood favorably in terms of overall satisfaction, safety, affordability, and similar measures. I found that people in the bottom income quintile in the United States were roughly 15 percentage points less likely to give favorable answers than people in the top income quintile. That compares to a gap of only two percentage points in Sweden.

European land use policies, scholars have found, are not biased in favor of single-family homes the way they are in the United States. And the hostility to urbanization found among early 20th century American elites wasn’t nearly as popular in Europe, which experienced centuries of city life before the United States was even established.”