End Single Family Zoning Or Not?

Housing and zoning continue to be hotly debated issues, given the recent passage of Portland’s landmark houising initiative. This follows efforts by other states and cities to allow other housing types in single-family zones.

Some Background

This post builds on two previous ones – Housing Reform Continues and Zoning Reform Continued, Now Add Housing.

Changing single-famiy zoning is seen as a way to increase housing supply to lower prices and provide greater housing choices. The other primary motivation is to end racial and economic discrimination. Single family zoning is seen as a major enabler for these policies.

Pushback has centered on disruption and incompatabilty with the existing neiegorhoods, increased density and traffic, reduction of parking availability, and reduction of property values. Some pundits would argue that racial discrimintaiton is still the real reason for opposition to change.

The city of Minneappaolis amended their zoning ordinance in 2019, allowing duplex and triplex housing in all single family zoned areas. As of September 2020, building permits for this housing type totalled three (3), (Triplex building permits requested in Minneapolis this year: 3), a less than expected result. One can argue that addtional time is neeed for developer’s to react and then build these units. Others argue that reduction of mininal building height, land lot width and depth requirements are needed.

There is then contunued discussion in the planning profession to support or opposse removal of single family zoning.

Photo by Binyamin Mellish on Pexels.com

Time to Rethink?!

This is a review of a February 2020 article Is it time to end single-family zoning? Eric Jaffe, Side Walk Talk, Medium. The author writes about:

“14 total planning voices, taking up the question of whether or not single-family zoning’s time has come — and, if so, what to do about it.”

Eric Jaffe, Side Walk Talk, Medium

Reasons to change single- family zoning are summarized first, followed by counter arguements and my commentary.

Why Change single -family zoning:

People can still build single-family homes – Changing the zoning allows other types of houses, in addition to single-family or detached houses.

Communities can still prevent Manhattanization – there is fear that allowing more houses will result in greater density, like New York (Manhattanization). This cna be prevented with height restrictions, consistent with each commuity or neighborhood and market conditions.

The missing middle can unlock affordability -differnt housing types – towhouse, duplexes, and the like, offer buyers a choice and greater opporttunity (affordabilty) to buy a house.

Upzoning won’t necessarily spoil housing investments – One planning scholar argues it’s not the role of planning to maintain or enhance property values. I believe this is a part of the larger issue of racial and ecomonic inequity. Providing housing diversity (change the zoning) is needed but, needs to be fitted to the conditions of each community.

Existing tenants can be protected – this means not displacing existing residents in the neighborhood (gentrification). This a very real problem, particularly for renters. There is no easy solution, other than paying attention to the community, providing other programs to maintain neighborhood cohesivenees. This must be balanced with the need for addtional housing.

Infrastructure strains can be managed – traffic, parking and open space are the infrastrucure most affected. Reducing parking requirements is a growing technique in many communities. Transportation alternatives – transit, bus, ride-sharing and biking may also offer solutions, but is a locational issue. New design tehniques can aso perhaps reduce infrastructure demands. The shift to working from home can reduce car depedency, while shopping and other needs could met within the neighborhood, thus encouraging walking. There is the greater demand on infrastructure when development is pushed farther from the denser core areas.

Middle Housing

Counterpoints and Commentary

Minneapolis shows the path forward – the city did it’s homework , knowing the impact that restrictive housing had on minorities. The new city zoning ordinance then “allowed” three residential units on all parcels and multi-family units “by right” near transit hubs.

Incremental change is wiser – The writer cites Sydney, Austraila that developed a “modified set of rules in areas that are already suitable for greater density.” This seems to be perhpas less controversial and confrontational process.

Political capital is better spent elsewhere – One scholar argues “that tackling single-family zoning will require enormous amounts of political capital that could better be deployed elsewhere, such as targeted affordability programs. ” I would agree that zoning change is a long process, but the success of afforfabilty programs is dubious at best. The same scholar does argue for a more measured approach, rather than ending singe-family zoning. This is similar to the incremental approach.

Focus on undeveloped areas – this is applies to infill or vacant properties in existing communities, linked to inclusionary/performance based zoning and housing mandates.

Ethics demand a change – The American Institute of Certified Planners (I have this designation) has a Code of Ethics that states “We shall seek social justice by working to expand choice and opportunity for all persons, recognizing a special responsibility to plan for the needs of the disadvantaged and to promote racial and economic integration.”

What’s needed most are new housing models – for me, this is THE critical need, regardless if zoning is changed or not. It must model the life cycle housing shown on the graphic below.

” This new model must encourage middle- and low-income housing, give these households access to good schools and jobs, and provide pathways for them to catch-up on the generations of wealth-creation they’ve missed out on.

Harley F. Etienne, University of Michigan
City of Grand Rapids, MI

What’s Next?

The housing crisis will continue, impacted by the pandemic. The outcome is unknown given current record low interest rates, and contiuned demand. This is offset by increased prices due to a shortage of available existing houses and not enough being built. The push for new housing will then continue and with it advocacy to change zoning. Stay tuned for more in later posts.

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