Making Rethinking Zoning Laws a National Conversation

We Are Apartments
Mar 10, 2020 · 5 min read

Many communities are revamping outdated policies that get in the way of building the housing America needs. Here’s why it should be a nationwide discussion.

Minneapolis did it. Seattle has done it. Dozens of cities and towns in Massachusetts have done it. They’ve pushed back against the conventional wisdom on zoning that says municipalities should devote a large share of their land to single-family housing. Instead, these communities are focused on how to add “gentle density” to create more housing options to what is called “the missing middle,” which includes duplexes, triplexes and quadplexes.

Civic leaders across the country are recognizing that to build the housing their communities need, they have to counter prevailing not-in-my-backyard, or NIMBY, attitudes toward apartments. Nationwide, an estimated 328,000 new apartments at all price points must be built every year between 2016 and 2030 to meet demand.

Making the approval process for new apartment construction projects more difficult negatively impacts housing affordability and availability. As the prices of single-family homes continue to rise, communities have started putting in place new zoning laws to make it easier to build multifamily housing. Policies that encourage denser housing in historic downtowns or remove caps on building height are popping up from coast to coast to increase density near transit and job-rich neighborhoods.

“[Multifamily housing is increasingly] seen as good for the environment, good for people, and good for housing affordability, and so it’s become an issue people are mobilizing around to allow more of,” says Amy Dain, a research associate at the Massachusetts Institute for a New Commonwealth.

However, in a 2019 report, the Brookings Institution’s Jenny Schuetz illustrated how land usage restrictions are preventing California from constructing more housing options. Most California municipalities, Schuetz found, allow for less than 25% of their land for denser housing. At the same time, more than two-thirds of municipalities only allow single-family housing on most of their land.

The status quo in places like California isn’t tenable and local housing crises have national implications. Experts say these local zoning conversations should go national if we’re going to meet the demand and build housing that people at all income levels can afford. Today, legislators have a prime opportunity to make the case by citing recent examples of successful reforms and capitalizing on growing grassroots support for out-of-the-box thinking on zoning.

To drive the national conversation, here are three things policymakers should know:

There’s no one-size-fits-all. But sweeping change is possible.

In 2019, the city councils and mayors in Minneapolis and Seattle rallied to modernize their zoning laws, becoming models for citywide change that is responsive to today’s housing needs. Each city went about their reforms in a different way. Minneapolis restructured its land to phase out single-family zoning across the city and to allow for denser housing. Seattle “upzoned” — going one tier, or story, higher in height regulations — in 27 of its neighborhoods, leading to more options in densely populated areas.

What united both approaches was a strong commitment to incorporating resident feedback. Minneapolis’ move to allow buildings up to six-stories tall in transit-centered areas was a direct response to resident suggestions. Seattle prioritized creating new “upzoned” housing with proximity to transit, public resources and parks, along with preserving the character of neighborhoods, because of what city leaders heard in many open forums with residents. Nationwide, as residents push for more housing options in recent years, “upzoning” has emerged as a popular proposal, and has been introduced in California, Oregon, Nebraska, and Virginia.

In smaller cities, more housing can help revitalize aging downtowns.

Municipalities in Massachusetts have made progress revamping their zoning laws and emphasizing more housing in popular areas of town, Dain says. She researched 100 communities in the Bay State and found that more than half permitted new apartment construction in central neighborhoods over the last 20 years.

“People see their historic downtown and village centers as real amenities for municipalities and adding more housing is a way to keep them vital and keep people coming on weekends and evenings,” Dain says. “[These efforts are] the result of a lot of political organizing and proactive work, which is largely based in people feeling it’s the right thing to do.”

Creating more inclusive debate and changing approval processes are a key part of the zoning discussion.

In order for these types of changes to take place in communities, the discussion has to broaden to include people that have otherwise been previously left out or discounted, says David Glick, a Boston University professor and coauthor of “Neighborhood Defenders: Participatory Politics and America’s Housing Crisis.”

“The whole setup of how we make zoning rules and permit projects means you’re naturally going to get an unrepresentative group of voices,” he says. With potential residents having little to no input, current housing and zoning standards are likely to stay in place due to NIMBY favoritism.

Massachusetts’ Housing Choice Initiative, which aims to produce 135,000 new housing units by 2025, is providing a prime example of how to overcome the structural bias that entrenches NIMBYism in communities. For instance, the initiative included legislation that lowered the thresholds within local governing bodies for approving projects, eliminating a “supermajority” vote, or two-thirds requirement.

“Our initiative removes barriers to improve land use and new housing … allowing cities and towns to adopt certain zoning best practices by a simple majority vote” by minimizing the burden on advocates for zoning reform and putting them on equal footing, says Chris Kluchman, the initiative’s inaugural director.

Since zoning reform “doesn’t fit [in to] some of the normal coalitions,” finding allies in positions of power and policymaking isn’t automatic for some housing advocates, says Glick.

But that also means there’s opportunities to bring unlikely allies together: The Yes in My Backyard (YIMBY) Act has been introduced in both chambers of the U.S. Congress with bipartisan support. The legislation requires states and localities applying for housing-related grants to provide explanations for zoning laws that limit the construction of different housing options. And, the Department of Housing and Urban Development published a request for information late last year to learn more about how housing affordability barriers are affected by burdensome regulations.

Giving zoning and housing issues an opportunity to be heard and fairly considered — and reconsidered — is vital to addressing housing affordability and availability, and places that allow such conversations and taking the appropriate actions are seeing benefits for their communities and residents.