Zoning Reform Works, but Is No Magic Bullet

Improving housing affordability and boosting housing production requires more than just eliminating single-family zoning.

2 minute read

May 26, 2022, 12:00 PM PDT

By Diana Ionescu @aworkoffiction


Multi-Family Housing

ND700 / Shutterstock

Zoning reform, particularly the elimination of single-family zoning in favor of higher density, has been at the forefront of efforts to reform U.S. land use planning and improve housing affordability. “But identifying the land-use policies that most effectively add housing is harder than it seems,” write Yonah Freemark and Lydia Lo in Bloomberg CityLab. “Mounting evidence indicates that one-off reforms such as eliminating single-family-only zoning aren’t adequate. To make meaningful progress in building homes, municipalities have to do more.”

To achieve the Biden administration’s goals, Freemark and Lo recommend that the federal government “require that local governments seeking grants both show that their zoning changes are actually producing additional housing units, and also that their reforms include the full array of land-use policies that affect housing affordability,” warning that “a one-size-fits-all strategy won’t be effective or equitable.”

While permitting more ‘missing middle housing’ is “a good step forward,” the authors write that “it will not increase access to housing unless those units get built.” Pointing to an example from Minneapolis, the article notes that “Between 2018 and 2021, according to city data, permits for small apartment buildings doubled, but only to 81 total housing units in those types of structures — a tiny figure in the context of the city’s 180,000 households.”

The authors go on to say that “Drawing attention to these middling effects does not invalidate Minneapolis’s reform,” but “other, less-prominent changes Minneapolis made in the previous years were much more effective in increasing the city’s housing stock.” These changes include legalized accessory dwelling units (ADUs) and the elimination of parking requirements, which led to a doubling of the number of permitted housing units from 2015 to 2020.

Freemark and Lo describe how the federal government can encourage effective zoning reform and land use regulations that addresses the needs of each community and demonstrably increases housing production, noting that “Aligning all elements of land-use policy is necessary to make meaningful progress.”

Tuesday, May 24, 2022 in Bloomberg CityLab

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