Right Sizing Zoning: State Guardrails for Local Control


Like it or not, since the Supreme Court’s ruling in Village of Euclid v. Ambler Realty Co. zoning has been the law of the land. Now, 97 years later, this decision has had a profound and detrimental impact on housing access and affordability in our country.

Embraced as a tool of racial and economic segregation following bans on more explicit practices like redlining, zoning’s scope has grown from use segregation, its primary function, into a multitude of ordinances that can be used to control who can afford to live in certain areas.

States are wading into the debate to set guardrails on local zoning powers to ensure that  housing affordability and access are no longer left off the list of priorities

Use Segregation

When the average American hears “zoning” they think of its role in use segregation. The three large categories that most often come to mind – residential, commercial, and industrial – can also include agricultural or even historic designation.

Use segregation, which naturally existed long before zoning, resembles a map that tells you what is allowed where. Commercial, residential, and industrial all have their places within a community reflecting each use’s specific needs.

The housing movement has largely left use segregation out of the reform discussion, the exception is allowing residential by-right in commercial-zoned areas. Given the state of the post-COVID commercial real estate market and the need for more housing just about everywhere, allowing housing in commercial areas attacks two problems at once.

Zoning Ordinances

Unlike use segregation, the ordinance aspect of zoning is where the YIMBY movement is largely focused, as this is where affordability and access are lost.

Where use segregation is a map, municipal zoning ordinances are more like a series of dials on an antiquated analog control panel.

Affordability and access can be changed by adjusting the certain dials up or down. The turning of these dials can be as broad as establishing varying levels of density or as narrow as how many trees a new home lot must have.

If a community wants to increase the barriers of entry to the community, all it must do is make the following adjustments:

  • Increase the costs of construction associated with aesthetic mandates and design requirements.
  • Increase the number of parking spaces via parking mandates.
  • Increase lot setbacks.
  • Increase impervious surface requirements.
  • Increase the unit size (floor area ratios for multifamily and square footage minimum requirement for single-family) so that smaller units cannot be built.
  • Decrease the number of housing options allowed by right.

Add additional dedications, fees, or lot improvements to achieve a specific home price.

If all of this sounds familiar, it’s because that is the same formula for status quo zoning found across the country today.

Embracing the Past, Without the Exclusion

The failure to meet the moment has caused state legislators to step in when and where local leaders have largely been hesitant to act.

In states where zoning reform has passed, legislators and governors have largely retained use segregation and provided local leaders with a new set of rules for zoning ordinances.

These new rules establish a new framework for zoning, one that frees it from its exclusionary past. Use segregation remains, and zoning ordinances have guardrails that ensure zoning can no longer be weaponized as a tool of exclusion.

Where single-family zoning has been the norm, these states have turned the dial of units per lot up and turned the lost size requirements down. Some states have also turned down the dials of parking and unit size and eliminated aesthetic mandates and design requirements.

The result has been increased consumer choice in housing and greater affordability; the latter is desperately needed as we now live in the most unaffordable time in our nation’s history.

While some supporters of the status quo will bemoan zoning reform as somehow opening our communities to factories into the middle of residential neighborhoods, that couldn’t be further from the truth.

State guardrails on local control can enable us to embrace the positive intent of zoning without the baggage of the exclusionary aspects that have grown in the past 50 years.

Nick Erickson is the executive director of Housing Affordability Institute.