The Role of Language in the Battle Over Zoning Reform

Missing middle housing? Ending single-family zoning? How language impacts public opinion in the movement to increase housing density.

2 minute read

December 14, 2022, 8:00 AM PST

By Diana Ionescu @aworkoffiction


Row of modern red brick townhomes on street with sidewalk and young trees

Elena Elisseeva / Townhomes

As cities and states around the country look to update their zoning codes to allow for more housing density, the language used around zoning reform can make a big difference in how initiatives are received.

As Teo Armus explains in the Washington Post, the framing of proposed zoning changes colors the way people view them, painting upzoning as either a threat to traditional neighborhoods or a boost to housing affordability.

Advocates say expanding housing supply would open expensive enclaves to more people, undoing policies once meant to keep out people of color. Opponents express concerns the changes would overwhelm local infrastructure and spoil what made these areas so attractive in the first place.

The phrase “ending single-family zoning,” which has been frequently used by media including Planetizen, “is an imprecise way of describing the change” because it “doesn’t tell you what it’s going to turn into,” says Jenny Schuetz, urban economist and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. For people who fear the single-family home next door will be torn down in favor of a high-rise tower, language that more clearly explains the type of new housing that could be built—such as the increasingly popular ‘missing middle housing’—could assuage some of their fears.

According to Jason Jordan, public affairs director at the American Planning Association, “We have to be sensitive and try to find a vocabulary … that avoids the technical jargon debate or this very polarized culture-war debate over whether the suburbs are good or bad.”

Saturday, December 10, 2022 in The Washington Post

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