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Can Single-Family Zoning Be Meaningfully Reversed?

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Can Single-Family Zoning Be Meaningfully Reversed?

Although there have been efforts to get rid of single-family districts, they lack the teeth to address the plethora of obstacles to residential development on a scale that would affect housing prices.

October 6, 2021
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Single-family only zoning has long been the smart bomb NIMBYs and municipalities used to keep out developments that would add density, multifamily, and “those people” of a different race, ethnicity, or class from moving into their neighborhoods. While there are efforts to eliminate these zoning rules, Alexander Von Hoffman, a historian and urban planner and design lecturer at the Harvard School of Design writes that these moves are unlikely to significantly increase the stock of affordable housing. 

In reviewing the history of anti-growth, suburbs in particular ensured that new development would be open only to high-income households by imposing minimum house-lot sizes, often up to three acres and sometime more than 10.
Local officials responded by making it more difficult for home builders to obtain construction permits. From the 1970s onwards, they implemented measures that impeded or blocked new construction in the name of saving nature, a process that the late Bernard Frieden, a longtime professor of urban planning at MIT and former director of the Joint Center for Urban (now Housing) Studies described as “the environmental protection hustle.” Under the guise of preventing sprawl, suburban cities and towns began imposing outright limits and moratoria on new construction to slow or discourage development. In addition, building department officials, civil engineers, and fire marshals each imposed increasingly demanding requirements on new residential development.

Although there have been efforts to get rid of single-family districts, they lack the teeth to address the plethora of obstacles to residential development on a scale that would affect housing prices. 

Minneapolis failed to increase the allowable height or size of new buildings, in effect precluding large multifamily structures. In Oregon, zoning reform allows municipalities to require large lot sizes. California’s new law allows local jurisdictions to impose owner occupancy restrictions on subdivided lots, leaves local zoning and design requirements in place, and exempts lands that have been deemed prime farmland, wetlands, or part of a conservation plan.

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