Zoning to Encourage Affordable Housing

8 min read

Local governments assume the responsibility 

The numbers tell the story. Urban real estate prices and rents are on a steady rise, as is the population. Usable land is harder to find. Older buildings are being taken out of residential stocks. Federal resources and subsidies are declining. And all of it is contributing to a national affordable housing crisis. Clearly, no one action or approach is going to solve the problem. But a June 2019 article on the Urban Institute’s Urban Wire blog by senior fellow Solomon Greene, formerly with HUD, and research analyst Jorge González compiled a list of zoning strategies that can have a significant positive effect on increasing affordable housing availability. The message: “Local governments across the country are taking matters into their own hands.”

In a January post Greene penned with Graham MacDonald and Emma Nechamkin, the authors proclaimed, “Zoning, a topic usually buried in the real estate sections of local newspapers or debated at community planning meetings, has recently taken the national stage.” Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Cory Booker (D-NJ) have proposed legislation to provide local incentives to ease zoning restrictions.

Following the institute’s lead, we zero in on some of the zoning strategies various jurisdictions have employed to preserve, protect and enhance affordable housing in their respective communities.

Reduce Single-Family Zoning and Density Restrictions
In December 2018, the Minneapolis, MN city council eliminated single-family zoning throughout the municipal area in an effort to increase housing supply and reduce costs. Single-family zoning had originally been a means to keep African Americans and other minorities out of exclusive neighborhoods and which, according to Henry Grabar in an article in Slate, “still functions as an effective barrier today. Abolishing restrictive zoning, the mayor said, was part of a general consensus that the city ought to begin to mend the damage wrought in pursuit of segregation.” The new plan, dubbed “Minneapolis 2040,” permits a minimum of three-family homes in the city’s residential neighborhoods, abolishes parking minimums for new construction and encourages high density along transit corridors. Following that city’s lead, the Oregon legislature has taken up a bill proposing to eliminate single-family zoning throughout the state.

As another lead from Minneapolis, the board of supervisors in Fairfax County, VA, is also easing height and density restrictions near transit stations, and actually discouraging large parking facilities, which is pretty revolutionary for a densely-built suburb. From 2016 through last December, Miami, FL; Denver, CO; Buffalo, NY; Hartford, CT and San Francisco have all completely eliminated minimum parking requirements citywide. Other cities, aiming to decrease building costs and maximize efficient use of space under-roof have relaxed off-street parking regulations in residential and mixed-use areas.

Washington, DC recently approved accessory dwelling units as a matter of right in all residential areas as one attempt to deal with the city’s high rents and chronic lack of affordable housing. The Montgomery County, MD Council just approved accessory dwelling units in July.

And as Greene and González explain, “Seattle recently rezoned several single-family neighborhoods as ‘residential small lot’ areas, which allows smaller, denser multifamily housing that preserves the neighborhoods’ look and feel while providing more affordable options.” Seattle is representative of the housing challenges of a city that becomes “hot” with high tech and urban popularity, but as a result faces significant segments of its population priced out of their longtime neighborhoods.

An op-ed in the July 25, 2019 New York Times by architect and University of Connecticut law professor Sara C. Bronin goes even farther, proposing a national law that compels local zoning boards to broaden the definition of families that can live together from “traditional families” to “families of choice.” “The definition of family matters,” she writes, “because zoning codes typically have a ‘one family per housing unit’ policy. These policies are most strictly enforced in the neighborhoods with single-unit detached homes. . . It’s in these communities where housing affordability tends to be low, and racial segregation high.”

Streamline the Process
In many jurisdictions, zoning and construction permitting are notoriously encumbered by red tape and bureaucratic intransigence. When wildfires tore through the Santa Rosa, CA area in October 2017 (more than 5,600 structures were destroyed with an estimated loss of $1.2 billion), the municipal government quickly streamlined the permitting and review processes to allow for rebuilding and infill. San Diego has also put in place new regulations to speed up the approval process for projects that conform to existing community plans and complete infill sites. The mayor’s office and city council have netted out the affordable housing initiatives as: Increased density bonus; increased number of development incentives; reduced permit process; reduced parking ratio; and off-site affordable dwelling units.

In a similar vein, according to the Urban Institute, “California recently adopted a statewide law that streamlines and expedites approvals for affordable housing developments in cities that are not meeting their share of regional housing needs.”

According to the Los Angeles real estate news site, The Real Deal, “This will allow developers of projects that meet the guidelines to skip the expensive and often years-long review process that involves environmental impact reports, city council votes and court challenges.”

Both Pinellas County, FL and Austin, TX have waived fees, as well as expedited the review process for construction and rehabilitation designated as affordable housing. Austin’s Neighborhood Housing and Community Development organization has defined the city’s new policy as S.M.A.R.T: Safe, Mixed Income, Accessible, Reasonably-Priced and Transit-Oriented. Another similar sentiment has been put forth by advocates from the Austin Independent Business Alliance, with the slogan, “Keep Austin Weird.”

Inclusionary Zoning
Gentrification has gone from being an issue in the most desirable coastal cities to a national problem as more people want to be in convenient, walkable urban areas. In an effort to deal with this challenge, many cities are adopting mandatory inclusionary zoning, which mandates a given number of apartments in each building be set aside for affordability at different income levels. New York City got on the inclusionary bandwagon in 2016. New Orleans recently passed regulations that designate levels of inclusionary zoning based on the strength and economic characteristics of individual neighborhoods, such as the French Quarter and the Central Business District.

Washington, DC has been one of the prime foci of gentrification; its inclusionary zoning program requires eight to ten percent of the residential floor area be set aside for affordable rental or for-sale units in new residential development projects of ten or more units and rehabilitation projects expanding an existing buildings by 50 percent or more and adding ten or more units.

Austin, TX and Arlington, VA are willing to trade density bonuses and greater building heights for larger numbers of affordable housing units. This may be particularly important in Arlington as the county prepares for the development of Amazon’s East Coast headquartrers.

Municipally-Owned Land
Another trend is to give affordable housing first priority in the use of surplus or no longer needed publicly-owned land parcels. King County, WA, which includes Seattle, has long given affordable housing providers first refusal opportunities with county-owned land that is being deaccessioned. Likewise, the entire state of California mandates that local municipal owners of public land give first priority to affordable housing projects.

Regional Cooperation
In 2018, as Greene and González report, 15 mayors in the greater Boston metropolitan area signed on to a plan to tackle the region’s chronic affordable housing shortage through local zoning initiatives. The center of the plan is greater allowable densities for affordable housing, with a particular emphasis on downtown areas where shopping, education and public transportation are readily available.

Though some forward-thinking jurisdictions are giving preferential zoning to affordable housing developers and streamlining the bureaucracy involved with rezoning, permitting and offering surplus public land, many other municipalities are not, or are merely giving lip service to such ideas.

A recent article by reporter Jacqueline Rabe Thomas in the Hartford Courant, for example, was headlined, “How some of Connecticut’s wealthiest towns fight affordable housing.”

And while all of these initiatives are welcome, and some are innovative, critics warn that there needs to be an evidence-based calculus to determine whether zoning reform measures are actually having their desired effect. So far, the evidence is inconclusive. MacDonald, Greene and Nechamkin note that the most complete data sets on local zoning and land use regulations date back to 1994 and 2003, concluding, “It’s hard to make good decisions without current, accurate information.”

The same critics who call for more evidence-based decision making suggest the most effective way to develop the evidence is for local governments and municipal entities to share data that measures results versus expectations for each initiative in order to compile an overall strategy that can be reliably expected to efficiently and cost-effectively increase the supply of affordable housing at all AMI levels in places it is needed most.

Story Contacts:
Jorge González, jgonzalez@urban.org
Solomon Greene, sgreene@urban.org