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Why’s Everyone Talking About Upzoning? It’s The Foundation Of Green, Equitable Cities

Why’s Everyone Talking About Upzoning? It’s The Foundation Of Green, Equitable Cities

June 11, 2019

By Alex Baca

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Why upzone? On most of the land in most cities in America, all you can build is a single-family home, typically on a large lot. In her 2014 book, Zoned In the USA, land use and planning scholar Sonia Hirt argues that American-style zoning is exceptional for this reason. As Tracy Hadden Loh showed here, 72% of our region is zoned single-family.

- Other countries have higher rates of homeownership, and their own land-use restrictions on what things can go where, but none are as prescriptive about separating uses, and none treat single-family zoning with as much disproportionate privilege as we do. Americans’ sense of entitlement toward land has resulted in a reverence toward single-family homes. — 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. — 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.

- For all the contemporary stress and finger-pointing around upzoning, many US cities have also downzoned over the past 60 years. As Benjamin Schneider wrote for The Nation: Los Angeles went from being zoned to accommodate 10 million people in 1960 to 4.3 million in 2010. —San Francisco’s 1978 citywide downzoning decreased the number of housing units that could be built in the city by 180,000, equivalent to more than 50 percent of the city’s housing stock at that time. Schneider notes that in Chicago, where 80% of the city is off-limits to multifamily housing, downzonings have been heavily concentrated in white, wealthy neighborhoods.

- Under Mayor Bill de Blasio, New York’s zoning changes have followed a similar pattern: Poorer neighborhoods get upzoned, allowing for more development, and wealthier ones get downzoned. That means people who are already relatively advantaged have been legally absolved of their responsibility to share their neighborhood’s resources. In DC, Lanier Heights residents organized to ban more housing in their neighborhood by asking the city to downzone it in 2016. — One-size-fits-all solutions are often knocked as ignorant of the concerns of local communities. But localities have a stronger track record of keeping people out often via zoning than building enough homes for the people who live there, or want to live there.

- Beyond allowing more housing to be built in places where it is currently illegal to do so, there are moral reasons to dismantle single-family zoning. The origins of zoning the United States are far from benign. Euclid v. Ambler, the landmark 1926 case that confirmed the then-emerging practice of separating uses through zoning, famously includes this tirade against apartment buildings. — 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.


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