Detached, single-family homes have become an important part of American culture, but banning every other type of home has made housing unaffordable and qualities of life poor. Changing zoning policy would improve the housing market dramatically.
The classic American dream always includes a picturesque suburban home with a big yard on a quiet street. But what happens when the devotion to this dream turns into a nightmarish obsession?
Over the past decade, the country has woken up to the reality of a major housing affordability crisis. Homeownership has grown increasingly out of reach for younger generations as home prices continue to soar. Many workers literally cannot afford apartments anywhere in the United States. Millions of families need to spend 30 percent—even 50 percent—or more of their income on rent.
As a corollary, rising prices in and near cities have forced people to live farther and farther away from their jobs. This trend forces people to endure longer and longer commutes and makes traffic much worse. It also places people far away from the amenities and quality of life many desire—living in an outer suburb separates you from attractive downtowns, night life, and community events.
There are many causes to these problems, such as gentrification, income inequality, development catered to wealthy people, and stagnating wages for many workers. These long-running issues deserve much attention, but the factor I want to discuss here is something rather innocuous: zoning.
Zoning, land-use regulations, and other regulations that dictate what can be built and where are a near-universal constant of urban policy. From central cities to exurbs, almost every municipality has an exhaustive set of rules defining how development can occur. In many cases, these policies make total sense (for instance, separating industrial factories from residential neighborhoods). Unfortunately, most cities implement zoning in detrimental ways, and one of the worst uses is single-family detached zoning. This type of zoning, known by different names in different municipalities, mandates that all buildings in an area be detached houses accommodating one family each. It outright bans any other type of development. Townhomes—banned. Rowhouses—banned. Even humble duplexes and triplexes are prohibited in these areas. While this trend may be obvious to you in the suburbs, even central cities restrict housing development in this manner. Big cities like Chicago, Los Angeles, and Seattle, have 79, 75, and 81 percent of their land, respectively, single-family zoned.
If we really want to tackle housing unaffordability and create more liveable cities, we need to start with one thing: banning single-family detached zoning.
The first benefit of this policy would be lower housing prices. Currently, housing markets across the United States are constrained on the supply-side. Even though the demand for housing is ever-greater due to population growth and migration, the supply is limited because of single-family zoning. The math is very simple: an area zoned exclusively for detached homes houses far fewer people than an area with multifamily and condensed housing. Economists estimate that converting just small shares of single-family housing (in the realm of five or ten percent) to duplexes and triplexes would create thousands of new homes per city. Converting some areas to townhomes or flats would create even more new housing units. Once the supply constraint of single-family zoning is removed, the market can provide many more homes, which would lower prices—or at least keep them from rising as much. Banning single-family detached zoning would drastically improve housing affordability.
Scrapping single-family zoning allows for the creation of what housing experts call “missing middle” housing. Throughout most of the country, you have to choose between living in a smaller-scale apartment in a downtown area or a large single-family house in a sprawling suburb. This stark binary exists because of our over-reliance on single-family zoning. If we remove it, we can build units that lie in the “middle” of that spectrum, such as duplexes, rowhouses, and townhomes.
These types of homes provide several benefits. Firstly, they are more affordable than traditional detached homes. Allowing their construction gives residents better options on housing. Instead of choosing between two extremes, they can choose to live in a variety of housing arrangements to suit their budget and lifestyle. These types of homes would be especially useful for young people and young families. Buying one of these properties is much more achievable for first-time homeowners, which means more people can afford their first home and start building equity in it. Families who want more space for children but can’t afford the down payment on a house can similarly find relief in missing middle units. Beyond affordability, missing middle housing offers a higher quality of life. Housing density is higher with these units, which means neighborhoods can support things like corner stores, cafes, and community greenspaces. You can run quick errands or meetup with friends just by walking a few blocks instead of driving long distances. This type of housing also allows people to live closer to where jobs are, which means shorter commutes. These communities can better support bicycling and public transit infrastructure, which means less cars (and less traffic) on the road and more ways to get around.
Getting rid of single-family detached zoning would make housing more affordable, and the new communities that would spring up would offer better lifestyles. Residents would also have much more freedom to decide where and how they want to live. People who desire shorter commutes and lower prices could live in apartments or townhomes. People who want more space and can put up with long drives could choose detached homes. Undoing single-family zoning would thus make cities much more liveable and enjoyable to residents.
Of course, removing or reducing single-family zoning is not a new idea, and it inspires considerable acrimony whenever it is proposed. However, most of the counter-arguments opponents offer are misguided or unfair.
Opponents will often argue that single-family zoning is necessary to preserve the “character” of their neighborhood and to prevent hyper-dense, unattractive development. However, these people are mistaken if they think scrapping zoning would lead to immense tower blocks and building complexes. There may be a few low-rise apartment buildings built near the center of town, but much more likely will be rowhouses, townhomes, and duplexes. These buildings are only two or three stories tall (either the same height or barely taller than single-family homes), and duplexes look almost identical to detached units. Multifamily housing can have immense charm. As an example, the units below are townhomes from a suburban part of Washington, DC and are individually styled. I challenge anyone to prove that these houses are objectively “ugly.”
Additionally, I would posit that limits on building height or total stories are a much better way of preserving neighborhood character than single-family zoning. Municipalities can still avoid massive developments but without making neighborhoods unaffordable and sprawling.
Another common complaint against multifamily housing is that it will stress public finances and services—especially schools. However, the opposite is usually the case. Low-density, sprawling suburban homes are very inefficient at capturing property tax revenue, which is the primary source of funds for local government. Because they are spread so far out and because there is only one unit per lot, the tax revenue per acre is much lower for single-family homes compared to middle homes. Townhomes, rowhouses, and apartment buildings fit more units into a given space, which means more property tax per acre. Sprawling single-family homes also carry much higher infrastructure costs. If everything is spread out, pipelines, electrical grids, and roads need to be that much larger. Combined, these effects mean single-family zoning increases expenses and lowers revenues. Public finances would be in much better shape if cities had more middle housing; denser development simply contributes more money to public services.
One final counter-argument to banning this zoning is that people simply prefer single-family homes. To this I say: fine. Some people definitely will want a detached, single-family home in a sprawling suburban neighborhood—but not everyone wants that, and even those that do want that type of housing don’t want it all of the time. There are some people who genuinely want smaller homes, denser neighborhoods, or just cheaper housing. Allowing more types of housing also accommodates people at different points in their lives. Elderly people might not want to maintain a huge space or do their own yard work. Families with very young children might want to put off buying a larger house for later. Young, unmarried people have little need for a single-family home. Of course, there will always be people who want a sprawling, suburban house. Even without single-family zoning, these units will still be built. Removing the restrictive zoning would not ban these types of houses, but advocates of single-family zoning are banning every other type of unit. If supporters of this zoning are so confident that people want detached homes, why do they need to use government power to ban every other type of development? Why not let homebuyers decide that in the free market?
In a future without exclusive single-family zoning, housing development will be much more balanced. People could choose a unit that fits their specific budget, lifestyle, and needs. Residents could enjoy much-shorter commutes and more access to amenities. The most realistic outcome of this change would be denser central cities and suburbs that have larger, mid-rise downtowns but still plenty of single-family homes and duplexes sprawling outwards.
Some variation of this zoning reform should take place in virtually all cities and suburbs. Central cities, such as Chicago or Los Angeles, need these changes most of all. There really is no reason why these large, downtown municipalities should ban rowhouses and townhomes in their city limits. These are full-on urban areas, and they should zone like it. Suburbs, too, need to ban single-family zoning. The crisis of affordability extends to these areas, too, and reform would allow people of more age groups to comfortably live in these towns. City and county governments, the ones who draw zoning maps, should take up this cause first. Unfortunately, many local governments are slow or averse to this type of reform. State governments, therefore, should step in to assist this effort. Some examples of this intervention include allowing developers to override local zoning laws when they're building affordable housing, requiring zoning reform for state-to-local grants, or by passing pro-housing zoning regulations on a statewide basis. There has been increased awareness of zoning reform in the past decade or so, but much more publicity and action is necessary to truly revitalize and improve our cities. With all the evidence in front of us, scrapping single-family zoning is an important step towards accessible, affordable housing.
Kevin Sciackitano is a a third-year Economics major in the College of Arts and Sciences. He serves as a Managing Editor for the Agora.
Image courtesy John K, Creative Commons