Zoning Reform Continued, Now Add Housing

Last’s week post talked about needed zoning reform , exposed by the current pandemic. Zoning reform started at various places around the country with some success but still has a long way to go.

There continues to be ongoing controversy about this, linked to the long standing issues of affordable housing and economic segregation – specifically, the dominance of only single family housing in communities. If you analyze your zoning map and ordinance, you will be surprised by this dominance. See my July 12 post and the referenced analysis of urban areas by the New York Times ( June 2019, Cities Start to Question an American Ideal: A House With a Yard on Every Lot ).

Reform Efforts

This has included “upzoning” – the removal of single family zoning, allowing increased density (units/acre) with other housing types – townhouse, duplexes, cottages and the like. See the images below:


The intent is to add to the housing supply (and variety), reducing their cost. Minneapolis and Oregon were successful in changing their respective zoning laws and requirements. Other places failed in their reform attempts, but likely will try again – Maryland, Virginia and California, the most prominent. This more radical reform has been equated to YIMBY – Yes in My Backyard.


As expected, there has been and will be continued opposition (loosely linked to NIMBY (Not in My Backyard), that increased density and other housing types change the character of the neighborhood, lower property values and violate the long held belief and tradition that a single family- home is the American Dream.

But there are numerous studies and facts that single- family zoning and our archaic zoning laws have contributed to racial and economic discrimination, fully exposed by the pandemic.


Win-Win Reform?

More moderate reforms are now developing, attempting to avoid the I win, you lose game. Places are communities where people live, work and play. This doesn’t have to be a zero sum contest, particularly when it’s about basic human needs – shelter and opportunity for self-support.

Want More Housing? Ending Single-Family Zoning Won’t Do It, a July 2020 Bloomberg CityLab post, argues that just prohibiting single family zoning won’t necessarily mean more affordable housing will be built. What is needed is:

more “missing middle” housing. The term refers to any low-rise construction that is denser than detached houses: backyard cottages, townhouses, small walk-up apartment buildings. In 19th and early 20th century American cities, it was the bread-and-butter of moderate-income housing. Think of Boston’s “triple deckers,” Atlanta’s midtown fourplexes and sixplexes, and Baltimore’s rowhouses.

Bloomberg CityLab

But the other needed element are the other zoning requirements that hinder housing – parking requirements, minimum lot sizes, height limits and more. One size doesn’t fit all, so these regulations should be flexible, tailored the a community’s character, culture and history.

Tweaking zoning codes doesn’t necessarily make housing construction feasible at lower price points. Leaders can’t always know what type of housing homebuilders in their locality will be able to profitably build. This depends on local demand, the existing housing stock and the milieu of regulations. That’s why reforms that appear to allow more housing to be built on paper may not result in the flexibility homebuilders actually need.

Bloomberg CityLab

“Gentle” density can save our neighborhoods A Brookings Report, offers another option, avoiding the false choice of large single family houses on large lots versus high rise towers to achieve needed densities – more housing. They argue for “gentle increases in density – such as townhouses, two-to four family homes, and small scale apartment or condominium buildings.” The post then illustrates , using Washington, DC, that this can increase housing while lowering their cost. See the chart below:

Figure 1

Three important lessons learned for other communities:

First, it is possible to add more homes in single-family neighborhoods while keeping buildings at similar scale. When viewed from the street, three adjacent townhomes or six small condos can be constructed at approximately the same height and mass as existing single-family homes.

Second, allowing smaller homes that use less land is an important way to improve affordability. .

Third, diversifying the housing stock in exclusive neighborhoods creates better access to economic opportunity.

Another moderate reform is allowing Accessory Dwelling Units (ADU’s) by right or by meeting certain conditions – lot size, building height, parking, design. Montgomery County, Maryland, a wealthy community north and adjacent to Washington, DC,amended its zoning ordinance to allow accessory apartments, after a year along analysis and six month public engagement process. The amendment was approved in July 2019, after an acrimonious campaign by supporters and opposition groups.

What’s Next

I hope housing reform will continue and accelerate, fueled by the pandemic and the need and desire to do and be better.

This will be tested shortly in my community, a bastion of single family housing, with limited other choices, based on the familiar developer’s cry – “but there is no market for that here!”

Two large residential communities are now poised to more than double our population, (estimated at 10,000).

One was annexed into the town 30 years ago, but the owner could never obtain the financing to build. Now there is a potential contractor purchaser, the largest home builder in the country and is raring to push dirt.

The second project is a proposed annexation, that also has been around for a long time, but again, new owners, with money, now want to actually submit the annexation application.

My concern (and there are many, but here – housing) is that the town elected leadership don’t settle for the same drab, cookie cutter subdivision we always see. Rather, they should press the developers to engage the community to find out what housing we really want, need and is affordable.

I have and will continue to reach out the the mayor and town council providing relevant information, as they begin their review. I will let you know how things are going!

Alexandra Kukulka / Post-Tribune, December 2019

2 Replies to “Zoning Reform Continued, Now Add Housing”

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