Ending Single-Family Zoning? Not Quite.

July 29, 2021 | Mike Kingsella
Reading time: 7 minutes min

Once an obscure issue reserved for the few who decided to attend local planning and zoning board meetings, single-family zoning is now in the white-hot spotlight, both at the national level and in cities and states across the country. Earlier this month, an editorial in the San Francisco Chronicle decried the added costs of single-family-only zoning on Bay Area-housing costs - $410,000 per lot alone, according to a new paper that examined these costs nationwide. Single-family zoning even made a brief appearance in the 2020 Presidential campaign, including dominating the conversation for a night at the Republican National Convention (however, the claims made during the convention were quickly debunked).

Amid the noise, it’s fair to wonder what the national conversation about single-family zoning is really about. Is it an “attack on the suburbs,” as some claim, or a panacea for solving America’s housing shortage and affordability crisis? Is there really an attempt to end zoning as we know it? The truth is, not surprisingly, more complicated than what could be conveyed in a soundbite or 30-second commercial.

First and foremost, there is no serious effort to eliminate zoning codes and restrictions, much less eliminate single-family homes altogether. Single-family homes have a purpose and remain the housing type preferred by millions of Americans. Those who want to live in – and can afford – a single, detached home will continue to have that option in nearly every community in the United States.

But what about the people who desire another housing type - or can’t afford a single-detached home - yet can’t find a home they can afford in a neighborhood in which they want to live? Pro-housing policies that many cities and states have enacted across the country are designed to provide more housing options in more neighborhoods.

Many places across the country are indeed passing reforms that will allow additional housing types in neighborhoods previously reserved exclusively for single-detached homes. Whether it’s Accessory Dwelling Unit (ADU) legalization in Montgomery County, Maryland, the Minneapolis 2040 plan that allows for duplexes and triplexes across most of the city, creating a commission in Maine to study land-use reforms and their potential impact on housing affordability, or even scrapping single-family-only zoning in the city that pioneered the practice, there is a concerted effort to enhance single-family zoning with new housing options for more people.

What you don’t see in any of these reforms is a push to allow large, multi-story apartment buildings in non-transit-served neighborhoods that currently contain only single-family homes. And you certainly don’t see a push to abandon zoning entirely. Instead, many of these changes to zoning laws enable more missing-middle housing, or “light touch density,” as Ed Pinto at the conservative American Enterprise Institute described it in an earlier Insights Report. Despite the clear economic, social, and tax benefits of enabling housing such as townhomes, duplexes, triplexes, and quadplexes, 75% of residential land is zoned to exclude everything but detached single-family homes. In other words, in many places, it is simply impossible to build the kind of housing desired by a growing number of people – and the type of housing that can make up some of the 7.3-million-home underproduction in the United States.

The conversation about enhancing single-family zoning is not exclusive to city halls and statehouses. For the first time, Congress is seriously considering proposals that would encourage localities to take steps to open up some of that 75% of residential land zoned for single-family homes. Up for Growth Action’s legislative agenda reflects this approach and reality. The Yes in My Backyard Act and the Housing Supply and Affordability Act directly aim to eliminate exclusionary policies that have contributed to our national crisis. These policies, however, do not prescribe a one-size-fits-all approach that assumes every community wants or needs the same reforms. Instead, these bills make it easier for cities and states to enhance their own zoning codes, among other significant changes.

The Biden Administration is proposing a similar approach. President Biden wants to allocate $5 billion for the Unlocking Possibilities Program, an “innovative new grant program that awards flexible and attractive funding to jurisdictions that take steps to reduce needless barriers to producing affordable housing and expand housing choices for people with low or moderate incomes.”

The Biden proposal effectively combines the Local Housing Policy Grant program proposed in the bipartisan Housing Supply and Affordability Act and the Housing Policy Innovation Grant program offered in Senator Elizabeth Warren’s American Housing and Economic Mobility Act. The Local Housing Policy Grant program provides funding for policy design and implementation. In contrast, the Housing Policy Innovation Grant program provides incentive dollars to cities that implement pro-housing policies – money for community development, transportation capacity, and funding for schools. In other words, the Biden Administration wants to give cities and states money to both incentivize policy and design and implement policy that will create more homes for more Americans.

We shouldn’t fool ourselves that enhancing single-family zoning alone will solve the national housing crisis. Emily Hamilton from the Mercatus Center has an excellent column explaining why changing zoning laws are somewhat limited in their efficacy. Zoning reforms must come with significant federal investment in housing, particularly for lower-income Americans, and we cannot ignore housing finance, particularly affordable housing finance. High construction costs and labor shortages will continue to make it challenging to build affordable housing.

What is clear is that we cannot continue to say no to modest reforms that will allow more people to access a home they can afford in a high-opportunity neighborhood. Enhancing single-family zoning will achieve what should be a universal goal and do so in a way that does not threaten neighborhood character or anyone who desires a house with a two-car garage and white picket fence around a front yard.