Zoning Has Support for Sprawl: Subdivision, Covenants, and Mortgages

Zoning codes are not the only kind of land use control that has built the U.S. residential market on the suburban model for more than a century, according to a recent article in The Urbanist.

Read Time: 2 minutes

January 17, 2023, 11:00 AM PST

By James Brasuell @CasualBrasuell


Early morning view of new neighborhoods and Route 215 from the top of Lone Mountain in Northwest Las Vegas.

trekandshoot / Las Vegas

Zoning codes are only one of four land use controls that evolved as an impediment to missing middle housing, according to an article by Ray Dubicki. Therefore, argues Dubicki, zoning reform is a “big deal and vital change if we are to overcome the housing affordability and meet our climate goals,” but more action will be necessary.

In addition to zoning, Dubicki identifies subdivision, covenants, and mortgages as the “four legs” of the housing table, working together for over a century to prioritize single-family detached housing in automobile dependent sprawl.

The article, linked below, explains how each of the non-zoning legs of the housing table contribute to single-family sprawl. Subdivisions, for example, are specifically designed to create separate lots, with adequate infrastructure service to each lot. “The result is asphalt everywhere and bizarre lots just to support driveways,” writes Dubicki.

Covenants, on the other hand, exist to maintain the status quo—preventing change to single-family lots or uses. And mortgages also control the shape and size of buildings, according to the article. “Mortgages cannot be used for buildings with more than four units, and banks often separately limit themselves to writing loans for singles or duplexes only,” explains Dubicki.

“The hard truth is that all of these components lean against one another,” writes Dubicki to conclude the article, but that fact is not intended to dissuade the public from zoning reforms. “What we have is more of a to-do list so that exciting new concepts can actually work.”

A lot more detail on each of the four land use control concepts described here are included in the source article.    

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