​​Could the future of zoning be LESS zoning?

The housing crisis spreading across the United States has led to skyrocketing home prices and a death of affordable housing. To address these issues, many cities have been eliminating single-family housing zones to allow for multiple-family apartments. But in the face of an increasingly tenuous situation, a zoning overhaul may be on the horizon.

Most cities and towns use what’s called a Euclidean zoning map. That means plots of land are designated as residential, commercial, or manufacturing districts. There are approval processes and committees that regulate what can be built where, how tall it can be, the number of units it can have, etc. These regulations are beneficial in many respects. No one wants an automobile plant built across from their home, for example.

But these regulations can also be significant impediments when trying to address affordable housing. While data collection regarding zoning on a nationwide scale is difficult due to the massive variations city to city or even neighborhood to neighborhood, a correlation has been found between more restrictive zoning and less housing/higher housing prices. (brookings.edu, 2019)

The adoption of more mixed-use zoning in recent years has been a step towards relaxing some of these restrictions. Mixed-use zones have benefits like decreased transportation costs and emissions, more cohesive and diverse neighborhoods, and providing a more compact development pattern that is useful for preserving open spaces. (sustainablecitycode.org)

But mixed-use zoning is still zoning, and often faces the same types of regulations and restrictions because they still exist within the traditional zoning laws. Flexible zoning codes that focus more on local impacts of projects may be valuable tools to address problems of affordability and sustainability. Though it still remains to be seen just how dire the affordable housing crisis will become before significant changes are made. (centreforcities.org, 2020)

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