Upzoning Isn't a Silver Bullet for Housing Affordability

Zoning changes have been a popular way to increase density and affordable housing, but more diversified policies could fill in the gaps where zoning fails.

December 22, 2020, 8:00 AM PST

By Diana Ionescu @aworkoffiction


Chicago Apartments

Alex Ford / Flickr

Long favored by urbanists as a panacea for housing issues, upzoning enhances density requirements and permits increased floor areas and number of floors for new residential construction in exchange for a certain percentage of affordable units. These policies are aimed at increasing density in highly-valued, transit-adjacent urban neighborhoods and raising the number of housing units available. After decades of prioritizing single-family homes, upzoning has the promise of promoting density and encouraging more affordable multi-family buildings in areas that desperately need more housing.

Cities have come to rely on zoning to solve a broad range of economic and social issues, but just how far can zoning go? From historic red-lining to Seattle's recent plan to reduce the number of gas appliances in multi-family buildings while exempting single-family homes, many zoning policies reduce broad policy objectives to arbitrary rules that conveniently exempt certain neighborhoods and fail to apply rules equitably. Zoning wasn't designed to create more housing, and as city leaders try to undo its well-documented history as a tool for segregation, new policies must address inequities and acknowledge the need for other interventions.

Wednesday, December 9, 2020 in The Urbanist

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