The Impacts of Zoning Laws in Montgomery County

Historic zoning decisions have left a lasting legacy of housing inequality. Current leaders have the opportunity to change that.

February 1, 2021, 7:00 AM PST

By Diana Ionescu @aworkoffiction

Maryland School

Graves Creative Design / Shutterstock

As the county evaluates proposed changes to its zoning code, Mike English analyzes the impacts of zoning regulations in Montgomery County, Maryland. According to English, "zoning, and little else, changes the economic and racial composition of a neighborhood." He assesses the demographics of differently-zoned neighborhoods immediately adjacent to each other, which show a stark economic and demographic difference between areas zoned for single family homes and those zones for higher density. "More flexible zoning is not a panacea for economic and racial equality and diversity. Those questions are complex and beyond the scope of a single article, but it is clear that differences this profound, in areas that are otherwise very similar, is not a total coincidence."

Recent developments in the county's housing policy, such as a proposed "racial equity and social justice impact statement" for Zoning Text Amendments, a proposal to encourage "missing middle" housing, and the county's recent vote to end the county's housing moratorium could shift these dynamics. Understanding the effects of zoning, writes English, helps us understand "how zoning decisions of the past have shaped racial and economic distribution in the county, and how the decisions we make now may have similar impacts going forward."

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