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The housing shortage in the United States, a problem that has persisted for decades, has become even more acute since the start of the coronavirus pandemic. The country has somewhere between 3.8 million and 5 million fewer housing units than it needs, according to various studies of the market over the past two years. That imbalance has driven home prices to record levels, which has in turn strained family budgets, exacerbated homelessness and made homeownership unattainable for a large share of the millennial generation.
Experts point to a number of reasons that the housing supply isn’t keeping up with demand, but one in particular has become a primary target for reformers: single-family zoning. Single-family zoning is a regulation that makes it illegal to build anything other than an individual, detached home on a plot of land — meaning dwellings like townhouses, apartments and duplexes that can house multiple tenants aren’t allowed.
Originally introduced in Berkeley, Calif., in 1916 as a means of preventing a black-owned dance hall from opening, single-family zoning became increasingly popular — though divorced from its explicitly racist origins — as more Amercans moved to sprawling suburban cities across the country. Today, many of the country’s major urban areas reserve 75 percent or more of their residential land exclusively for stand-alone, one-family homes.
Recently, lawmakers in blue states and cities have moved to roll back zoning rules in hopes of spurring more development. Minneapolis became the first major city to ban single-family zoning in 2019. That same year, Oregon passed a similar law statewide. Perhaps the most significant change came in California where the median home price is estimated to exceed $800,000. A new law that eliminates single-family zoning across the entire state went into effect on Jan. 1. None of these reforms make it illegal or even more difficult to build a stand-alone house, they simply remove barriers that prevent any other type of dwelling from being built.
Why there’s debate
Advocates for eliminating single-family zoning say it's the most important step toward addressing the housing shortage, since any other programs to spur more development would be moot if there’s no land to legally build on. Supporters say eliminating what they often refer to exclusionary zoning would have wide-ranging benefits beyond just creating more housing stock, including reducing racial segregation and closing the racial wealth gap, boosting job opportunities in urban areas and reducing climate impacts created by suburban sprawl.
Many conservative opponents of these reforms, including former President Donald Trump, have portrayed them as a “war on the suburbs” that would bring big-city problems to quiet communities while doing little to address the underlying causes of the housing shortage. Some argue that financial incentives, not coercive new laws, are the best way to spur development.
A lot of pro-housing advocates also have doubts about how much of an impact zoning reforms on their own will make. They argue that most of the new laws are riddled with exceptions that limit their scope and few also address the long list of other ways that local governments can prevent dense housing from being built — like minimum lot sizes and parking requirements. Some on the left make the case that the only way to increase housing supply at the pace that’s necessary is through strict mandates that require cities to build a certain number of housing units and impose heavy financial penalties on those that don’t.
Zoning reform won’t solve the housing crisis, but it’s a prerequisite for any plan that could
“Ending single-family zoning is not the silver bullet to end California’s housing crisis. But it is an important piece of a larger effort in the state — and the nation — to fix failed policies and misplaced priorities that have led to a broken housing market and woefully inadequate housing safety net.” — Editorial, Los Angeles Times
Zoning reform on its own won’t be enough to increase housing supply
“The reality will not be instant housing abundance—or the destruction of the suburbs, for better or for worse. Zoning is a powerful obstacle to denser, more affordable development—but reforming zoning can only do so much.” — Henry Grabar, Slate
The end of single-family zoning will mean the end of the suburbs
“At the very moment when the pandemic has made people rethink the advantages of dense urban living, the choice of an alternative will be taken away.” — Stanley Kurtz, National Review
Current reforms are too weak to make much of a difference
“Across the country, more and more local leaders are taking aim at single-family zoning, a policy they say is making cities less affordable, less equitable, and worse for the climate. Despite both the hype and/or heated opposition they've received, most of the particular reforms that have been passed or proposed make exceedingly modest changes to cities' land-use regulations.” — Christian Britschgi, Reason
The U.S. can’t meet its housing needs if single-family zoning remains in place
“To become a nation that builds, we must tear down the regulatory obstacles. In housing, ordinances that prohibit multifamily housing need to go. Other policies that limit density, like parking minimums and height restrictions, must be liberalized.” — Eli Dourado, New York Times
New laws don’t change the financial incentives that drive developers to the suburbs
“In several progressive cities and states, a raft of recent high-profile zoning reforms encourage densification, walkability and transit-oriented development in an effort to ease housing costs and improve sustainability — and far more dramatic changes will be required to reduce carbon emissions and avoid the worst effects of climate change. But so far, those factors are not nearly enough to offset the magnetic pull of cheap land.” — Patrick Sisson, Bloomberg
Local governments are more capable of deciding how best to promote development
“The United States has a housing shortage. But the answer isn’t to have Washington, D.C., strong-arming local decision-makers. … That’s a mistake. Local control is vital. Towns can take into account the availability of public transportation, school capacity and proximity to employment. Uncle Sam has no clue.” — Betsy McCaughey, New York Post
Despite right-wing fear mongering, zoning reform is not a threat to the suburbs
“No one is proposing the mass demolition of existing single-family homes; no one is trying to tell suburbanites what they can and can’t do on land they personally own. Rather, progressives are asking suburban homeowners to cease blocking housing construction on land they do not own (or else forfeit a portion of their municipality’s federal subsidies).” — Eric Levitz, New York
Some cities will need to be forced to build more housing stock
“For those localities that cannot be convinced, cajoled, or financially incentivized, more punitive action is necessary. It’s time to sue the suburbs. … We’ve talked about the carrots, now here’s the stick: The Biden administration must open up the floodgates for civil rights organizations, developers, and its own Justice Department to begin suing the worst offenders of exclusionary zoning.” — Jerusalem Demsas, Vox
Anything that encumbers the free market must be eliminated
“The goal should be to reduce regulations across the board, so builders can more easily respond to market demand by building whatever consumers want to buy. Defending antiquated zoning laws will not accomplish that objective, for the same reason government control of any product or service only distorts the supply and demand process.” — Steven Greenhut, Orange County Register
A radical rethinking of housing is the only way to ensure every American has access to shelter
“The fight for housing is not about type or about zoning or about density; it is about the right to live in a dignified way at all. … The way to a world with fair housing isn’t going to be found in alternatives that don’t completely upend the balance of power between capitalists and the working class.” — Marianela D’Aprile, The Nation
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