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Expanding Affordable Housing Opportunities: Zoning and Land Use Case Studies

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Restrictive zoning and land use practices are one of the major barriers to increasing our nation’s housing supply in high-demand regions, thereby contributing to unaffordable housing costs. In recent years, however, proponents of zoning reform have organized, worked to build public support, and secured high-profile policy achievements to allow for more and different types of housing to be built. In some instances, they have succeeded in rolling back burdensome regulatory requirements, which typically prevent development.

The J. Ronald Terwilliger Center for Housing Policy has developed a series of brief case studies highlighting several zoning and land use reforms enacted at the local and state levels. The case studies include details of specific provisions to allow for more housing and greater density, as well as a snapshot of any early evidence of impacts. However, because most state and local actions to advance zoning reform have been quite recent, it is premature to evaluate the overall effectiveness of these policy changes. The full consequences of the changes should become more evident in the coming years.

Case Studies

Pioneering Zoning Reforms in Grand Rapids, MI

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Illustration by Wynton Henderson

Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs) in California

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Eliminating Parking Minimums in Buffalo, NY

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Small City Zoning Reforms in Auburn, ME

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Reducing Minimum Lot Sizes in Houston, TX

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  • Comprehensive Zoning Reform in Minneapolis, MN [forthcoming]
  • Missing-Middle Housing Legislation in Nebraska [forthcoming]
  • Eliminating Single-Family Zoning and Parking Minimums in Oregon [forthcoming]

Key Lessons Learned

Zoning reform is only one part of the equation.

Zoning and land use reform is an essential prerequisite for increasing development, since building more housing is subject to significant legal restrictions in many communities. However, simply improving zoning and land use practices for new construction is often insufficient. Affordable housing is expensive to build, and policies that encourage the construction and financing of new developments to take advantage of new housing capacity may also be necessary.

In several cases, reforms may only result in a modest increase in housing supply and affordability. A recent study from the Urban Institute found that, nationwide, policies to relax land use restrictions increased housing supply by an average of 0.8% in the medium term (3 to 9 years).1 This mild but statistically significant effect likely reflects the fact that most land use reforms so far have implemented minor tweaks to the existing rules, while bold, sweeping reforms are a new phenomenon. For the most part, there have not been ambitious land use changes in the U.S., and the few that have passed have yet to take full effect. Still, a modest impact from a land use reform measure does not mean that the measure is unimportant; rather, it likely indicates that the reform is the first step of a process.

Successful reform requires multiple attempts and sustained community engagement.

Since 2016, the California State Legislature has passed over a dozen bills to encourage accessory dwelling unit (ADU) development. By closing specific loopholes and removing restrictions imposed by local entities, the passage of these bills was necessary for local ADU development to occur.  The fact that so many different pieces of legislation passed demonstrates that zoning and land use reform often requires an iterative process rather than a “one-off” action—reformers need to build durable support and keep reform at the top of the agenda to make continued progress to encourage housing development.

Similarly, Auburn’s first attempt at zoning reform failed due to strong opposition. But rather than give up, the city engaged with a variety of stakeholder groups to solicit input, listened to residents’ concerns, and refined its approach. Minneapolis and Grand Rapids also carried out extensive outreach campaigns to increase community buy-in to proposed policy changes.

Zoning reforms that unlock a pipeline of development have more immediate results.

Many illegal ADUs already existed in California before the state government passed bills allowing them, indicating a clear demand for and potential supply of ADUs. When Houston allowed for smaller lot sizes, tens of thousands of homes on smaller lots were permitted in the following years, proof there were developers ready to take advantage of the city’s reforms.

Minneapolis saw new, large apartment buildings with less—and in some cases zero—parking in the years after it reduced parking requirements. By contrast, when Minneapolis later eliminated single-family zoning, the city increased potential housing capacity without spurring an immediate flurry of development, likely because there was not an existing network of developers and investors ready to finance those “missing middle” projects, which are expensive.

To understand what policy fixes will yield short-term housing supply increases, policymakers should talk to developers in their city or state and ask what restrictions are obstructing a pipeline of projects they would be ready to implement quickly.

Local leadership helps drive reform.

In Auburn, Mayor Levesque’s advocacy for zoning and land use reform was key to passing reforms through the city council. The mayor reached out to national think tanks to inform them of his approach, and ran for reelection on his housing platform, giving the council a clear mandate to act on housing affordability.

State-level preemption is effective.

By using state-level preemption to override local zoning restrictions, California and Oregon were able to enact sweeping reform across the state, rather than relying on dozens or even hundreds of local policy wins. Nebraska’s less prescriptive approach, which required localities to develop their own housing action plans, is perhaps more politically feasible—and could be a model for federal legislation—so it will be important to measure the impact of Nebraska’s new law in the coming years.

[1] The same study found that policies to increase land use restrictions resulted in an increase in median rents of $50, with a reduction in affordable units.

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