Urban Wire How Communities Are Rethinking Zoning to Improve Housing Affordability and Access to Opportunity
Solomon Greene, Jorge González-Hermoso
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Amid a national housing affordability crisis and declining federal resources for affordable housing, local governments across the country are taking matters into their own hands. Some are finding new ways to raise revenue to directly support affordable housing development, while others are adopting laws and policies to protect residents from rent increases or evictions.

Local governments are also increasingly recognizing that restrictive zoning and outdated land-use regulations can suppress housing supply, drive up housing costs, and widen racial and economic disparities. Leveraging smart zoning reforms and easing building restrictions can unleash housing supply to help meet the needs of current and future residents.

Here we explore some innovative zoning and land-use reforms that cities and other local governments are using to improve housing affordability and access to opportunity.

Build bigger—and smaller

Many cities are reforming local land-use regulations to build more housing where it is needed most. This involves both building bigger (lifting height or density restrictions) and smaller (finding opportunities to build on smaller parcels of land).

In December 2018, Minneapolis, Minnesota, became the first major US city to eliminate single-family zoning in an effort to increase housing supply and density, reduce housing costs, and create more racially and economically integrated neighborhoods. Other jurisdictions, such as Fairfax County, Virginia, and are taking less dramatic (but no less relevant) steps, such as easing height and density restrictions near transit stations. This way, cities can grow without increasing traffic congestion.

Tapping into underutilized land can also increase housing options. One popular solution is to allow homeowners to add secondary housing, or “in-law units,” on their properties. Washington, DC, recently approved by-right accessory dwelling units in all residential zones, providing new affordable and diverse housing options for low-income renters in high-cost neighborhoods.

And Seattle recently rezoned several single-family neighborhoods as “residential small lot” areas, which allows smaller, denser multifamily housing that preserves the neighborhood’s look and feel while providing more affordable options.

Cut the red tape

These reforms recognize that when it comes to real estate development, time is money, and outdated or inefficient requirements can drive up costs or kill projects entirely. Santa Rosa, California, learned this the hard way. The city recently scrambled to streamline its permitting and review process for new construction as a response to the devastating effects of the wildfires in 2017.

San Diego, California, also recently adopted a set of reforms aimed at speeding up the project approval process, including streamlining review for infill housing and other projects that comply with existing community plans. Pinellas County, Florida, (PDF) and Austin, Texas, (PDF) have taken more targeted approaches, expediting their review processes and waiving fees if the project involves dedicated affordable housing.

Other cities are relaxing off-street parking requirements, as these requirements can increase building costs and create an inefficient use of space. Although many cities have reduced minimum parking requirements in certain neighborhoods or for certain types of projects, Buffalo, New York; Hartford, Connecticut; and San Francisco, California, have eliminated them citywide.

Boost affordability

Even when land is maximized and bureaucracy minimized, the private market still may not provide housing that is affordable to the low- and moderate-income families who need it most. Local governments often rely on state and federal government to provide subsidies to offset the costs of constructing and maintaining more affordable housing. But with those resources declining, they are also thinking creatively about local tools to support long-term, deeper affordability.

One such tool is mandatory inclusionary zoning, which requires developers to set aside a share of apartments that are affordable to households at different income bands. New York City adopted a citywide requirement in 2016 to slow gentrification and to create more affordable housing options across the city, and New Orleans recently adopted a inclusionary zoning policy that tailors requirements to the strength of the market in specific neighborhoods.

Similarly, Austin, Texas, and Arlington, Virginia, are implementing density bonuses, which incentivize (but don’t require) the production of affordable housing in exchange for increases in allowable building heights.

Cities can also tap into their own land inventory. King County, Washington, has a long-standing policy that gives affordable housing providers a “first look” at county-owned land, and California has a statewide policy that requires local agencies disposing of surplus public land to give first priority to affordable housing.

Promote regional solutions

Building more affordable housing in a few neighborhoods or even citywide may not be enough to address a region’s housing needs. And although some of the cities mentioned above are experimenting with innovative affordable housing solutions, many others continue to create or perpetuate exclusionary barriers, reinforcing regional racial and economic segregation across a region.

In response, some cities and counties are working together to develop regional solutions to affordable housing issues, including through smarter zoning and land-use planning. Last year, 15 mayors in the greater Boston region signed on to a plan to ramp up housing construction in response to the region’s housing shortage, which includes a set of strategies to improve local zoning. One of the participating communities, Arlington, Massachusetts, has already proposed adopting density bonuses for affordable housing and allowing greater density downtown to help meet regional housing goals.

Some states are also stepping in to ensure that every community is providing fair housing opportunities for all—with zoning and land-use reforms at the center. California recently adopted a statewide law that streamlines and expedites approvals for affordable housing developments in cities that are not meeting their share of regional housing needs. And state legislatures in Oregon are considering a bill to eliminate single-family zoning statewide, taking a page from Minneapolis’s playbook.

Build the evidence base to drive positive change

As cities, counties, and states explore new ways of zoning and regulating land, it is important to remember that not all reforms deliver their intended or desired outcomes. And innovations that work in one context may not easily transfer to another.

Although evidence is growing on the need for local zoning reforms, evidence is still thin on the effectiveness of recent innovations or the conditions that drive their success. Sharing data, experiences, and outcomes among local governments will be essential to achieving smart zoning reforms that ease affordability pressures, expand housing options, and improve access to opportunity for everyone.


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Research Areas Neighborhoods, cities, and metros Land use Housing
Tags Land use and zoning Housing affordability Community and economic development
Policy Centers Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center
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