In the excellent article by Alex Baca Erik posted about yesterday, she focused a great deal on the need to upzone areas currently designated for single family housing only, a form of land use that, absurdly, includes most of the land where housing can be built in most American cities. She didn’t talk a lot about what single family zoning should be replaced with, which led to some speculation in comments about towers in the sky appearing in single family neighborhoods. This might, theoretically, be a consequence of an end to zoning altogether, but it’s certainly not what Baca and pro-housing zoning reformers are suggesting. What those reformers have noted, correctly, is that there’s lots of room for increased density in these areas without radically changing the built form. The neighborhood Rob and I lived in in graduate school is a fine example of this–in one of the older parts of Wallingford, our rental house was surrounded by rowhouses, garden apartments, duplexes, and some small (2-3 story, 6-15 unit) apartment buildings, as well as single family homes. This neighborhood only exists in this form because it was one of the sections of Wallingford built before the cloud of exclusionary zoning settled over much of Seattle in the mid-20th century. The argument against single family zoning generally takes the form of advocating for allowning something like that to emerge again.
The thing about this kind of zoning reform is that to have an impact, it has to be broadly applied. The general approach to upzoning is to find a place the city decides it wants to channel growth and upzone there. Since this kind of zoning change is likely to add units slowly over time, perhaps just a few per block, it needs to be broad–ideally city-wide–to have a real impact on housing supply. Last December, Minneapolis made history by passing a set of zoning reforms and affordable housing plans that included effectively ending single family zoning in the city. Anywhere single family housing could be built, you will now be able to build a triplex. (It is perhaps not a coincidence that Minneapolis is one of the only major cities governed by millennials and younger gen-xers; few issues better fit the generational warfare framing better than exclusionary vs plentiful housing.)
Earlier today, The House of Representatives in Oregon passed a similar measure, HB2001, by a wide margin, with 75% of Democrats and over 50% of Republicans voting for it. Portland area legislator Tina Kotek’s bill would change single-family only zoning state-wide to allow 4-plexes. This bill almost certainly has the support of a majority of state senators and the governor; the main obstacle to this bill becoming law is the Republican members of the state senate are staging a quorum strike; as of this writing they are in the process of fleeing or have recently fled the state to avoid being forced to vote on a cap and trade climate bill, championed by Governor Brown, that has also passed the house. (The State Senate in Oregon is currently 18 D, 12 R, but 20 Senators are needed for a Quorum.) The outcome of that standoff will likely also determine the fate of this legislation.
I tend to assume the value of this kind of legislation is so obvious that it hardly needs to be spelled out, but to do it anyway:
- The original purpose of single family only zoning was to achieve racial segregation without segregating by race directly. It spread quickly as a response to Buchanan vs. Warley, and 1917 case that ruled a Louisville law prohibiting sales of homes to Black people in certain parts of the city on freedom of contract grounds. The idea of segregating by housing form rather than overtly by race as an end-run around this decision took off immediately and spread across the country. See ch. 3 of Rothstein’s Color of Law for receipts.
- Whether, or to what extent, the desire for racial segregation motivates continued support for single family zoning today, there can be no question it is a major driver of economic segregation. It is, quite simply, a law that says “you must be able to afford X amount of land to go with your home to be permitted to live in this neighborhood.” These neighborhoods are often locations of opportunity and privilege, bit and small–they may be in the best school districts, they may provide access to parks and recreation, they may simply have safer spaces for children to play (multi-family housing is more likely to be zoned for streets with more and faster traffic, condemning those who can’t afford land with their house to a more dangerous and polluted immediate environment.)
- One impediment to the construction of new housing is the cost of building it, which can be extremely high. One reason new single family homes and (unsubsidized) new high-rise apartments are almost always going to be expensive is that these are particularly expensive forms of construction. 4plexes are probably the cheapest form of housing to build, which means new housing developments priced for a less wealthy segment of the market are more likely to pencil out and get financed. Single family neighborhoods in cities generally have better transit and shorter commutes to job centers than “drive till you qualify” single family homes further out. Imposing a “you must be rich enough to afford 5000 square feet of land to buy a home here” rules in uniquely valuable locations is a form of opportunity hoarding and class warfare, and should be opposed by anyone concerned about growing economic inequality. This kind of legislation increases the breadth and depth of freedom of movement as a universal right. (Opponents of this kind of change will fine examples of some new attached homes in 2/3/4plexes that are more expensive than some older homes. This tactic should be about as compelling as someone sorting through the used car listings and discovering that (some) Nissans are more expensive than (some) Audis.
- While Republican opposition to a separate climate change bill may render HB2001 collateral damage, it’s a climate bill in its own right. People generally don’t want long commutes, for obvious reasons; this creates more opportunities for more housing at a wider range of price points near where the jobs are, and it incentivizes smaller homes, with smaller environmental footprints. Michael Andersen has a nice analysis here of the climate impact of adding just one duplex/triplex/4plex per block in single family neighborhoods. It’s not trivial.
One reason these reforms are unthinkable is the no-growth, pastoralist vision of environmentalism (that just happened to coincide with their material interests) boomers left us with. Recent developments in Portland and Minneapolis suggest we’re finally starting to crawl out from under it, and may be willing to start letting our cities be cities, and stop using land use regulation to enable a scheme of planet-cooking generational theft.