Event Recap: How Zoning Broke the American City

Dec. 14 Event: How Zoning Broke the American City

On Dec. 14, a group of 50 Minnesotans gathered for a discussion on zoning reform. Builders, developers, city staff, housing advocates and housing trade groups came to hear researcher and author M. Nolan Gray discuss zoning and its role in our housing crisis. 

In his book, Arbitrary Lines: How Zoning Broke the American City and How to Fix It, Gray advocates for major zoning reform that lets planners plan. 

“We had incredible turnout,” said Nick Erickson, executive director, of Housing Affordability Institute. “The diverse crowd we assembled crossed the political spectrum, yet this group sent the message that more action is needed at the state level on housing. The momentum is growing as Minnesota’s housing crisis is worsening.”

M. Nolan Gray (right) outlines why zoning modernization is necessary.

Erickson and Gray started the evening with a discussion on the role zoning play in both housing affordability and access, with Gray outlining his vision of more efficient and effective land planning and approvals. Erickson asked Gray about how planning should work. Gray said that diverse coalitions of groups passionate about housing have been critical in getting  

On the subject of the prevalence of planned unit developments and zoning variances, Gray noted that the pervasiveness of these illustrates that zoning is broken and not working as it should. 

The event also featured an audience Q&A. Attendees asked questions ranging from how urban growth boundaries impact growth, the role of both state and local leaders in addressing barriers to housing supply, and zoning’s role in racial segregation.

Minn. State Rep. Steve Elkins (left), author of the “Legalize Affordable Housing Act,” participating in the Q&A.

The latter topic has been a central theme in the push for zoning reform in Minnesota. The Twin Cities has the widest homeownership equity gap in the nation, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The subject of zoning’s role in racial segregation has also been the subject of research by the Star Tribune and the Mercatus Center at George Mason University

Gray explained that the history of zoning is that it was used as a tool of class-based segregation in housing following bans on explicit racial segregation, with class-based exclusion disproportionately impacting communities of color. 

The crowd gathers for “How Zoning Broke the American City.”

“It was such a good opportunity for a very diverse crowd to get to hear a nationally known speaker come in and tell us how to help fix housing,” said Tony Weiner of Cardinal Homebuilders. “I sat next to city planners, an elected state official, and other builders and we were all nodding along with what Gray was saying about zoning issues and how we can all get together to help make housing more affordable.”

This event was free and open to the public. 

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