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3 Stories Show the Flip Side Of Zoning Reform

August 5, 2020 by admin
Housing, Policy/Legislative

By Wilf Sommerkorn

As housing affordability has become an increasingly prominent issue in many of our country’s urban areas over the last few years, there has been an associated push for “zoning reform.”  I have written about these efforts, both for the APA Utah Chapter legislative updates and for the broader commentary on planning and land use trends.

Mostly, the term “zoning reform” is applied to movements to do away with exclusive single-family zoning, and to allow for the broader acceptance of regulations that allow for “missing-middle” housing (see posts here and here).  Just recently, another state has been added to the list of those taking a serious look, Vermont.

In the last couple of weeks, however, writings have emerged that attempt to show the flip-side of the zoning reform juggernaut.

The first I’d like to call your attention to is a post from Jason Segedy, Planning Director of Akron, Ohio, called It’s Time to Get Real About Zoning on the blog Notes from the Underground.  Jason says that the calls for reform come from both sides of the political spectrum:

Recently there has been quite a bit of discussion about the need to reform zoning codes in American cities – particularly the portions of those codes which mandate single-family, detached housing as the only permitted land use across large swaths of our cities.  The call for reform is increasingly cross-ideological, involving voices from the left, primarily concerned with social justice and economic inequality; and voices from the right, primarily concerned with free markets and private-property rights.

But Jason goes on to note that the process of rewriting, or “reforming,” municipal zoning codes is much more a practical and political process, rather than one based on ideology.  He says:

if you want to change the system, it’s not enough to tweet away self-righteously at a bunch of like-minded urbanist followers, to a cascade of likes, about “how much sense” zoning reform makes, or how “irrational” existing codes are, or about “how stupid people are” for not seeing the self-evident truths about zoning that you can see. …This is law.  This is politics.  If you want to change it, you actually have to convince people.  And when I say “people”, I don’t just mean legislators.  I mean the general public.  Because they vote for the legislators.  And those legislators like to get reelected.

The eminently interesting part of all this is, despite loud protestations about how unfair and unbalanced current zoning laws in general may be, most of those on both sides of the political spectrum live in communities where they don’t want to see the zoning changed, not really.

Many a rock-ribbed conservative believes in strong and intrusive regulation of [other people’s] private property.  And, at the other end of the ideological spectrum, there are countless left-wing attorneys and professors, some of whom have devoted their careers to social justice and the reform of land use regulations, who yet live in economically and racially segregated neighborhoods in suburban communities with highly-restrictive zoning codes. … We don’t have the system of zoning that we do because a bunch of urban planners decided to make it that way back in 1922.  We have the system of zoning that we do because most citizens, and the elected leaders who represent them, want it to be that way.  If we want to change it, we need to start with them.


Another informative piece comes from a post on the Planetizen blog by Michael Lewyn, associate professor at the Fuchsberg Law Center, Touro College in Long Island.  His post is a review of the book Neighborhood Defenders.  His review emphasizes as well the difficulty and challenges in making substantial changes to land use codes to enable development proposals.  Michael notes about the title of the book:

although I and many others have often used the term “NIMBY” (Not In My Back Yard) to describe them, the authors suggest that the term “neighborhood defenders” more accurately describes what opponents of housing think they are doing—defending their neighborhood from unwelcome development.

Michael finds in the book plenty of justification for “zoning reform”:

Based on a survey of dozens of towns in metropolitan Boston, the authors show that the number of zoning regulations is correlated with low levels of housing production, especially low levels of multifamily housing production. Suburbs with many different types of regulation have fewer new apartments or condos, and the buildings that are developed in these suburbs have fewer units. This correlation is not limited to regulations directly limited to housing supply (such as density limits); even more seemingly innocuous regulations can be used to delay housing. In other words, more regulation means less new housing.

Michael concludes that despite proclamations from residents of their support for changes in zoning policy, the reality may be different:

The authors suggest that the opinions of neighborhood defenders are not representative of the public as a whole. They rely on the results of a 2010 referendum in Massachusetts on repealing Ch. 40B. Most voters voted no—that is, they supported affordable housing. By contrast, only 15 percent of commenters spoke in support of new housing at zoning hearings. On the other hand, it could be argued that voters were happy to support new housing as long as it was likely to be in someone else’s neighborhood….


It’s a complicated world out there.  This is made even more evident from the third piece, an article in New York Magazine’s Intelligencer section titled Trump’s Racism Won’t Win the Suburbs But It May Diversify Them by Eric Levitz.

Eric displays polling data showing the leftward political drift of suburban voters, which may cause those voters to go exactly in the opposite direction. But then he notes (stop me if you’ve heard this before…):

The affinity of many affluent Democrats for exclusionary zoning does not mean that their avowed liberalism is wholly fraudulent. Many NIMBY liberals enthusiastically support politicians who raise their taxes to fund social spending on the poor. But when asked to sacrifice more immediate and visceral privileges to their ideological commitments — by, say, … tolerating low-income housing developments that could theoretically impair the value of their homes, … many an affluent white progressive discovers his inner Archie Bunker. Or else, such liberals delude themselves into believing that resisting new housing construction is some kind of populist stand against greedy real-estate developers, and/or that preserving single-family zoning will somehow aid the environment.

These three pieces are worth a read.  If nothing else, they show how complex the issue of zoning reform really is, as has already been borne out in California and several other states and cities.  It will indeed be interesting to see how things eventually play out here in Utah.