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Say Yes to Upzoning

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Despite zoning’s history of exclusionary use, I’ve long defended the idea on principle. It’s a throwing the baby out with the bathwater thing. Yes, racists and classists have used zoning to exclude people, but they will always find a tool to do that and zoning is a tool that can also be used to create greater equality. With the present urban crisis of affordability and sprawl in an era of rapid onset climate change upon us, the use of upzoning is absolutely critical to any strategies to keep our cities livable and our planet alive. This is a good piece about it, with a focus on D.C.

Besides the fact that “subjugating vast spaces to human will” is not a proclivity I consider healthy, the enshrining of single-family homes is increasingly at odds with the realities of 2019 and beyond. Right now, too many people can’t afford housing, and the planet is increasingly warming.

Neither of these parallel crises is helped by the fact that the only thing you can usually build in most American cities is a single-family home, which is on average more expensive than a home in a multiplex, and far worse for the environment. By preventing multifamily homes outright, single-family zoning dramatically curtails the construction of more, smaller homes. Apartment living might not be for everyone, but it shouldn’t be off-limits to build the kinds of neighborhoods we say we love.

Upzoning throughout a whole city, or perhaps a whole state rather than individual or selective parcels, is increasingly acknowledged as a way to contend with certain aspects of the affordability crisis simply by allowing for more housing. Without upzoning, any hypothetical social housing program would be immediately stymied in the majority of places under our current zoning regime, concentrating poverty even further.

Broad upzoning would be good for the planet, too, because it means that more people can live in places where they can walk or take transit where they need to go. People don’t just disappear, or stop moving to a place. They move as close to what they prioritize—their jobs, good schools, or amenities—as they can afford, and when they can’t afford to be as close as they’d like, they’ll go farther out, not simply vanish.

Zoning caps how many units can go in a given neighborhood, and thus, how many people can live there. Neighborhoods that are expensive are so in part because lots of people want to live in them. Eventually—again, to be as close as they can afford to what matters to them—people will spill over into the next most proximate neighborhood. Eventually, lower- and middle-class people will be pushed out and won’t be able to afford to move in.

Because we have so significantly limited what we can build in our cities, for so long, right now, there’s no such thing as an American city that has run out of room. We should consider making space for, yes, all people, regardless of their class or race.


And I thought this was a good way to frame zoning’s exclusionary history for the present:

In the United States, we used the precedent set by Euclid v. Ambler—that separating buildings based on what they’re used for is both legal and preferred—to justify the use of zoning and other legal mechanisms, like covenants, to spatially separate people from each other on the basis of race. As a result of decades of planning our cities with codes that say that this is OK, we’ve come to see how zoning exacerbates inequality.

That zoning’s application has legally enshrined deep and persistent racial exclusion in America is not up for dispute. Fortunately, we are working toward an increased national understanding that excluding anything but single-family homes is a proxy for excluding other people. When we’re next confronted with the opportunity to make a decision about upzoning or downzoning in DC, we should consider what history has to tell us.

Of course, what if upzoning leads to a 4-story building that causes a shadow in the park? And what about my property values on the home in San Francisco I bought for peanuts in 1972 and now intend to sell for 5 million dollars? Isn’t a guaranteed investment on my home a human right enshrined in the Bible and the Constitution? These are among the many unserious arguments that people will make against upzoning. They need to be rejected entirely.

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