Challenges to Single-Family Zoning Gain Popularity

August 13, 2020

Zoning challenges are happening in cities across the country as communities look to add more affordable housing. Portland, Ore., is the latest to grab headlines: Its City Council this week approved a broad rezoning ordinance enabling construction of garden apartments and triplexes beside single-family homes.

The new zoning policy, known as the Residential Infill Project, allows up to four homes on nearly every residential lot. In some cases, developers can build up to six units on one lot if at least three of the units are affordable by low-income families, Willamette Week reports.

Last year, Oregon lawmakers effectively banned single-family zoning in the state. The law mandated that cities with populations of more than 25,000 to allow higher-density housing types, such as fourplexes and townhomes, in areas that were previously zoned only for single-family housing.

The Portland law goes further in making that a reality in the city. (Read more about it at Sightline.org.) “I am proud to support a policy that creates opportunities for more housing and different kinds of housing,” Mayor Ted Wheeler told Willamette Week after the vote. “I am particularly proud that the proposal offers a significant bonus for affordable housing developers, given the significant need.”

Policies challenging single-family zoning have been controversial. Neighborhood associations have argued that “upzoning” destroys the look of streets by allowing more variety of housing into neighborhoods and could hamper nearby property values.

Several cities in recent months—most notably, Minneapolis—have sought to challenge single-family zoning in favor of higher-density options in addressing what some have deemed an “affordable housing crisis.” States like California, Minnesota, North Carolina, and Virginia have introduced legislation to allow for higher-density zoning in areas that have been traditionally approved only for single-family housing.

But such bills haven’t been successful everywhere. California’s Senate Bill 50, which proposed allowing homeowners to convert a garage, office, or spare room into living quarters, did not get enough votes to pass earlier this year. The California bill also proposed allowing three homes on land that was previously zoned for single-family use.

Cities are “physically running out of space,” Tendayi Kapfidze, chief economist of LendingTree, told the MReport. “The zoning restriction creates affordability problems in many of the most desired metro areas, and removing it should be a priority for cities that want to be competitive in the future.” He points to data that shows the average existing single-family home price was $288,700 in April, and the median condo price was $267,200.

“There is no perfect answer, balancing old neighborhoods that were less densely populated versus trying to provide more housing in a convenient location at reasonable prices,” Robert Senko, president of ACC Mortgage, told the MReport.

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