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Zoning, Zoning, Zoning

4 min read

Embedded within the real estate adage, “Location, Location, Location,” is the all-important, yet oft-overlooked zoning. Reform efforts have been building in a slow and steady crescendo over the years, towards what seems like a soon-to-come center stage performance. 

The hindrance for federal action has always been that zoning is an inherently local issue, with fear of government overreach and loss of local control. And while the basic tenants remain unchanged, the feds are starting to figure out how to use carrots and sticks to shape outcomes in this sphere.

The reimplementation of the Obama administration’s Affirmatively Further Fair Housing (AFFH) rule serves as the stick by requiring communities receiving Department of Housing and Urban Development funding to examine and address fair housing challenges. The rule specifically notes that local land use and zoning practices that violate fair housing or other civil rights laws are a federal concern and disparate impact claims can be brought under the Fair Housing Act.

The Obama administration homed in on zoning in the Housing Development Toolkit in September of 2016, citing local barriers to housing development and providing a framework for addressing them. The Trump administration established a White House Council on Eliminating Regulatory Barriers to Affordable Housing, which published a report in January of 2021. Despite the late-term focus, both initiatives contributed to the momentum that got us to where we are today.

The Biden administration got off to an earlier start, publishing the Housing Supply Action Plan in May of 2022, which included a specific action from the federal government to “reward jurisdictions that have reformed zoning and land-use policies,” i.e., a carrot.

This promise was funded in Fiscal Year 2023 appropriations via a new $85 million competitive grant program administered by HUD for communities that identify and remove barriers to affordable housing production and preservation. The mechanics of this program are still being sorted out, but now is the time to talk with your local governments about this funding opportunity, encouraging them to identify barriers for removal and apply for the funding when it becomes available.

HUD recently published a zoning-focused brief in its inaugural issue of the Office of Policy Development and Research’s (PD&R) new Policy & Practice publication. The brief summarizes the effects of restrictive land use policies on housing supply, location and affordability in addition to highlighting reforms that state and local governments can adopt to increase housing supply. The report urges adoption of the following policies:

  • Increasing multifamily zoning;
  • Allowing missing middle and larger multifamily development by-right;
  • Enabling adaptive reuse and conversions;
  • Eliminating parking requirements;
  • Reducing minimum lot sizes;
  • Supporting equitable transit-oriented development; and
  • Streamlining permitting processes and timelines.

I’m hopeful that a government-authored document tied to a new funding resource will be helpful in advancing these goals and serve as a starting point for communities. I suspect this document will also be used by HUD in setting up guidelines for the new competitive grant program.

HUD also announced an award of $350,000 to Cornell University’s National Zoning Atlas, with the goal of closing data gaps that limit our understanding of the relationship between zoning and segregation, affordability and other outcomes of interest. Specifically, these research funds will enable researchers to study the impacts of zoning in the largest cities in the U.S. by contributing to the first-ever comprehensive geospatial repository of zoning conditions.

Taken individually, any one zoning ordinance may not amount to much. But once we can see on a national scale just how much zoning hinders affordable housing development, I’m hopeful that the Atlas may prompt further government action.

If you’re still looking for more on zoning, I’ve added Arbitrary Lines: How Zoning Broke the American City and How to Fix It by Nolan Gray to my summer reading list. The synopsis promises Gray will show “why zoning abolition is a necessary—if not sufficient—condition for building more affordable, vibrant, equitable and sustainable cities.”

I’m excited that zoning is finally starting to get the attention it deserves. There are many examples of progressive approaches to zoning already in use and ripe for replication. Competitive funding mixed with an affordable crisis demanding attention might just be the combination we need to move the needle.

Kaitlyn Snyder is managing director of National Housing & Rehabilitation Association.