Housing Shortage Tied to Single-Family Zoning

October 15, 2020

As housing shortages deepen across the country, single-family zoning is increasingly becoming a prime target of lawmakers who seek to remake neighborhoods by adding density. Over recent years, some local and state governments—like Minneapolis and the state of Oregon—have essentially eliminated single-family zoning to make way for more types of housing in response to middle-class housing shortages. Other states, including Washington, Maryland, and Nebraska, also have introduced various forms of reform that target single-family zoning.

Wednesday, during the Urban Land Institute’s virtual conference, housing analysts and lawmakers pointed to single-family zoning as perpetuating segregation and inequality, leaving first-time buyers with fewer options and fostering an increase in homelessness.

For example, the majority of zoned land in California is reserved for single-family housing, said David Garcia, policy director at Terner Center for Housing Innovation at U.C. Berkeley, who spoke during the session "Legislating Density as a Solution to the Housing Crisis." In Oakland, Calif., alone, 65% of residential zoning is reserved for single-family housing. That has left the state with a scarce number of lots to respond to its deficit of more than 3 million housing units.

Garcia cited research that shows if California eliminated single-family zoning and allowed fourplexes in more areas, then it could add 3 million new homes to meet the state's housing needs.

However,  the “not in my backyard” attitude held by established residents has long stood as a barrier to eliminating single-family zoning. Critics say adding more types of housing could add traffic to neighborhoods and potentially lower property values.

Accessory dwelling units, which are essentially another small home added onto an existing lot, are increasingly being built as a response to housing shortages. California permits the addition of ADUs on single-family lots, and that has fostered rapid expansion of the housing trend. Permits and the completion of ADUs in the state have more than doubled from 2018 to 2019.

But panelists at Wednesday’s session cautioned that ADUs are only be one piece of the puzzle to solve cities’ housing shortages. More land that has been zoned for single-family homes needs to be freed up to build on, they said.

“Single-family zoning caps out what you can build … We need to zone for enough housing,” Scott Wiener, a California state senator, said during the session. That would then allow for more housing in areas near transit and job hubs, and prevent greater sprawl, long commutes that plague roadways, the loss of farmland, and building in wildfire zones, he said. “We’re drunk on sprawl because it makes our lives easier,” he said. “Then we don’t have to have the difficult conversation about zoning in our existing communities where the jobs and transit are.”

Homelessness will continue to accelerate if states don’t do more to respond to housing shortages, Pinkston warned. “We need to solve the middle-income housing issue at scale or our homeless problem will grow astronomically,” she said.