Should Zoning Be Abolished? How the Land Use Laws We Take For Granted Are Hurting Us

Zoning laws create segregation, inequality and unsustainability. So why do we keep them?

PUBLISHED JUN 21, 2023 3:50 P.M.
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Zoning for single family homes is at the heart of numerous urban and social problems.

Zoning for single family homes is at the heart of numerous urban and social problems.   Wolfields / Pixabay   Pixabay License

Donald Trump is many things to many people, but there’s one distinction he almost certainly holds to himself. In 2020, he made zoning laws a centerpiece of his presidential campaign. Maybe there’s a candidate before him who also did so, but all immediate indications are that Trump was the first.

Of course, Trump didn’t use the term “zoning” with any great frequency in his campaign. He instead issued dire warnings about Democrats and his then-opponent Joe Biden who in Trump’s formulation planned to “destroy our suburbs.” In one “town hall” interview during the campaign, however, Trump got specific. 

Democrats, he said, were scheming to “eliminate single-family zoning, bringing who knows into your suburbs, so your communities will be unsafe and your housing values will go down.”

Americans would be shocked to learn how heavily their country is zoned compared to similar countries around the world. 

While rhetorical consistency has never been one of Trump’s hallmarks, his defense of single-family zoning stood out, because about one year before he made that statement, Trump signed an executive order creating a “White House Council on Eliminating Regulatory Barriers to Affordable Housing.” 

One of those regulatory barriers was single-family zoning

While Trump appeared unable to make up his mind whether he was for single-family zoning or against it, a new school of thought in urban planning emerged, a trend of which UCLA urban planner M. Nolan Gray is one of the foremost proponents.  Under this evolving new paradigm, zoning is not necessary at all, and in fact does much more harm than good.

Americans Take Zoning for Granted

In establishing his White House Council, Trump was simply doing what presidents before and after him have tried to do. The Obama administration issued a report specifically citing zoning laws as causes of inequality and housing inequity, and the Biden administration in 2021 announced a program to work with state and local governments to “reduce exclusionary zoning.” By restricting construction to one home per lot, often with generous minimum lot sizes, single-family is a textbook example of “exclusionary zoning.”

But one possibility that no administration has seriously entertained is to eliminate zoning laws completely.

The Obama administration issued a report specifically citing zoning laws as causes of inequality and housing inequity.

Though zoning laws did not exist in the United States until 1908 and weren’t determined by the Supreme Court to be Constitutional until 1926, Americans today seem to simply take for granted that zoning laws are a fact of life. A 2021 poll by Scott Rasmussen found that only seven percent of Americans believe that there should be no zoning laws. 

Why are Americans so committed to zoning?

Zoning: Only in America! 

Do other countries impose zoning restrictions in almost every city or town, the way the United States does? According to University of Georgia Planning Professor Sonia Hirt, Americans would be shocked to learn how heavily their country is zoned compared to similar countries around the world. 

“The zoning system that we have in the United States, as ‘normal’ as it may seem to those who grew up with it, may be particularly American,” Hirt wrote in her 2014 book Zoned in the USA: The Origins and Implications of American Land-Use Regulation. “It is different from the models used by other countries that are commonly compared to the United States—the countries of the so-called industrialized or western world.”

The British urban planning expert J. Barry Cullingworth, in his 1993 book The Political Culture of Planning, went even further, saying that the American system was “resistant to description, let alone explanation,” and that even calling it a “system” was a “misnomer.”  

The European approach to land-use regulation, Hirt wrote in a 2010 paper “To Zone or Not to Zone? Comparing European and American Land-use Regulation,” focuses on “mixed use,” that is, commercial, residential, single-family, multi-family and other uses all allowed in a single district. Mixed-use policies are more conducive, Hirt wrote, to “diversity of people, built forms, human activities and land uses” which she called “the most important precondition of urban vitality.”

Zoning and Racial Revanchism

American zoning law on the other hand “is most commonly based on the assumption of exclusivity (i.e., each land-use district is suitable for only a single type of human activity, such as residential, business or industrial),” Hirt wrote.

In the U.S. most local governments left single-family zoning unchallenged. The cause was largely 'revanchism in the wake of civil rights legislation and white flight.'

“Today, the United States stands alone among high-wealth countries in its copious use of exclusive zoning for single-family detached homes,” University of North Carolina planning researchers Andrew H. Whittemore and William Curran-Groome stated in their 2021 paper “A Case of (Decreasing) American Exceptionalism: Single-Family Zoning in the United States, Australia, and Canada.” 

The other two countries named in the paper’s title followed the U.S. practice for much of the 20th century, but opened up most single-family zoning to multiple uses in the 1970s, in response to environmental concerns.   

But in the U.S., Hirt  reported, most local governments left single-family zoning “unchallenged.” Why? According to the two UNC researchers, the cause was largely “revanchism in the wake of civil rights legislation and white flight.” In other words, the goal of zoning became to keep neighborhoods as white as possible.

The No-Zoning Paradigm Shift

In his book published in 2022, Arbitrary Lines: How Zoning Broke the American City and How to Fix It, UCLA’s Gray attempts to spark a movement that could be called Zoning Abolitionism. Gray names four problems caused by zoning.

  • Increased housing prices. The prevalence of single-family zoning in the U.S. allows less housing to be constructed, slows down the process of getting new housing construction approved and requires new houses to be generally larger than they might otherwise have been—all factors that increase scarcity and drive prices up.

  • Zoning limits Americans' ability to relocate into cities, which historically have been where economic opportunities are found. In earlier eras, working class and poor people could move to cities, live affordably and find employment. But thanks in large part to the consequences of zoning laws, most large cities have become out of reach for all but the wealthy. “Now Americans move from rich places to poorer, less productive places. And we’re all poorer as a result,” Gray said.

  • Zoning creates segregation based on class, which tracks with racial segregation. “Zoning says, ‘In this neighborhood, you can only have a home if it’s on a 10,000-square foot lot. If you can’t afford that, then you don’t get to live there,’” Gray said in a Washington Post interview. “Zoning to this day maintains a high degree of economic segregation that would not have existed otherwise.”

  • Finally, zoning creates environmentally unsustainable living areas. By separating residential zones from commercially zoned areas where grocery stores, pharmacies and other necessary businesses are permitted, zoning forces people into cars simply to acquire the necessities of life, and of course, to get to work. In fact, Gray says, zoning codes effectively make owning a car the law. Zoning, wrote former Pasadena Mayor Rick Cole in a Pasadena-Star News op-ed, is what creates “the hellish traffic Southern Californians constantly bemoan.”

‘A Fairer, More Prosperous Nation’

By making cities unaffordable, zoning also forces people to move to the most energy-intensive regions of the country, which are mostly rural states in the South and Midwest. Housing in those states tends to be cheaper, but due to climate and other factors, energy use is higher. 

Zoning, according to Gray, also limits the housing supply and drives up prices of existing housing, by limiting “infill development,” which is new development that goes up on otherwise unused vacant property, as well as refurbishing existing structures to make them suitable as housing.  

“Zoning has real-world effects that are dire. Between mandating parking garages and banning apartments, it has made infill development prohibitively difficult in many American cities,” Gray wrote in his book. “And in suburbs across the country, it has made the starter homes we so desperately need—think townhouses and homes on small lots—effectively illegal to build. If Americans want a fairer, more prosperous nation, zoning has got to go.”

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