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Will ending single-family zoning solve America’s housing crisis?

Minneapolis and Seattle are among cities that have effectively ended single-family zoning, but “upzoning” pits individual rights against a perceived common good.

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A 125-square-foot tiny home that Salt Lake firm Architectural Nexus built for a Seattle-based program aimed at ending homelessness is pictured on Tuesday, Oct. 29, 2019.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — With the cost of rent causing some people to live in cars or commute for hours to work, some cities have decided on a surprising solution: doing away with single-family zoning, long a component of the American dream.

Minneapolis and Seattle are among cities that have effectively abolished zoning that restricts neighborhoods to owner-occupied, single-family dwellings. Oregon has done so in its largest municipalities, and Californians, like residents of Salt Lake City, are now free to build small cottages, sometimes called “granny flats,” for use as rentals in neighborhoods that were previously single-family only.

The intent is to enable more people to live affordably in good neighborhoods, either in multifamily homes or backyard cottages. With more housing options available, demand will lessen and rent prices fall, say proponents, who are often called YIMBYs, which stands for “Yes in My Back Yard.”

But the practice called “upzoning” has its own costs, chief among them the potential for significant changes in long-established neighborhoods. And one study found that upzoning in Chicago inadvertently led to even higher housing costs.

Across the country, however, policymakers are grappling with how best to help people who can’t afford escalating rent costs. As Katie McKellar reported for the Deseret News, Salt Lake County has seen a 78% increase in the cost of rent since the year 2000, with more than two-thirds of the increases occurring in the past five years, leading local officials to conclude that they can’t “build their way” of the problem.

A five-year master plan completed in 2017 said that Salt Lake City is in the “beginning stages of a systemic housing crisis” driven by demand in a county where about two-thirds of existing housing consists of single-family detached homes. The report recommended changes to zoning laws that could allow for greater density in the city.

Salt Lake City has already approved accessory dwelling units, or ADUs, and basement apartments are not uncommon across Utah, especially in areas near colleges and universities. Wholesale upzoning has yet to come to the state, but with one of the nation’s most robust economies, it could be on the horizon. Writing for CityLab, Nolan Gray and Brandon Fuller cited Colorado, Utah, Nevada and Idaho as states that could manage explosive population growth with changes to existing zoning laws.

The ethics of space

Before World War II, only about 13% of Americans lived in a suburb; now more than half of us do, and as The New York Times has reported, in many American cities, more than 75% of residential land is zoned for single-family use only.

In some cities, the share is even higher: In Charlotte, North Carolina, for example, 84% of residential land is zoned single-family; in San Jose, California, 94% is, according to an analysis by the Times in conjunction with UrbanFootprint.

Our collective love of space and privacy, and its widespread codification, is distinctively American, wrote land-use scholar Sonia Hirt in her 2014 book “Zoned in the USA.”

“The U.S. model works to create urbanized environments that are strikingly low in population density, from an international point of view,” Hirt wrote.

Meanwhile, American homes have grown exponentially larger. In 1950, the average home was 983 square feet. Between 1973 and 2008, the average size of new homes in the U.S. increased from 1,660 to 2,519 square feet, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. And the advent of supersized homes, sometimes derisively called McMansions, have made some people question the ethics of one family having so much space.

Enter “upzoning,” which supporters say gives property owners more freedom, while potentially providing more housing in tight rental markets.

“Allowing for even modest amounts of new density in the nation’s overwhelmingly single-family dominant locales could lead to millions of new housing units nationwide, helping alleviate a housing affordability crisis that has been decades in the making,” housing analyst and economist Issi Romem wrote last month for Zillow.

Romem, founder of the housing research institute MetroSight, says that if just 10% of single-family lots in America’s largest metropolitan areas were upzoned to allow two homes instead of one, there would be an additional 3.3 million homes built in the next two decades.

Some people fear that such changes could turn “leafy neighborhoods into an urban concrete jungle,” Romem wrote. “But in practice, allowing just 1 in 10 single-family homes in a given neighborhood to host a livable in-law suite above the garage or a bachelor apartment in the basement isn’t likely to drastically alter an existing streetscape. However, it could still contribute meaningfully to new housing supply as metros grow increasingly unaffordable.”

Municipalities have always considered exceptions to zoning laws on a case-by-case basis, which is why you can come across an apartment building or student housing complex in an area thick with single-family homes. What’s different now is the movement to upzone entire cities in one fell swoop, an idea recently endorsed by the editorial board of the New York Times, which called widespread single-family zoning “a huge entitlement program for the benefit of the most entitled residents.”

A radical experiment?

In Oregon, where legislators last year voted to allow up to four housing units on previously single-family lots in the state’s largest cities, some people are predicting dire outcomes. Eben Fodor, an urban planner in Eugene, said the move was radical and made Oregon residents “guinea pigs for an untested and speculative transformation of the fundamental rules that affect housing ownership and investment.”

The new law says that cities with populations between 10,000 and 25,000 must allow duplexes on all lots and parcels in single-family zones.

Larger cities, those with populations of 25,000 and more, must also allow triplexes, fourplexes, townhouses and cottages in single-family zones.

Writing for Eugene Weekly, Fodor predicts that corporations will swoop in and buy homes for cash in order to subdivide them and charge the highest rates the market will bear. Subsequently, he says, rates of homeownership will fall. “Starter homes will disappear. Families with children will struggle to find anything other than the tiny new one- and two-bedroom ‘middle housing’ rental units with no yards, no parking and little storage space,” he wrote.

Moreover, cities will face infrastructure problems when water and sewer systems created for single-family homes are increasingly taxed. Schools and public services like police and parking could also become a problem in some neighborhoods.

Upzoning also could be an unwelcome change for homeowners who bought their homes with the expectation that a neighborhood’s character would remain consistent for decades.

“The American Dream continues to be owning a single-family home with a yard. Whether this is right or wrong, it’s still what most people want,” Fodor wrote.

Gaining momentum?

Despite the opposition of Fodor and others, upzoning seems to be gaining momentum across the country, and a California state legislator recently reintroduced legislation that would effectively end single-family zoning in that state. The bill of Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco, has failed twice, but Wiener says he is optimistic about its chances, with revisions that give cities more say in how changes are implemented.

Already, California has made it easier for residents to build “accessory dwelling units” on their property for use as rentals, with laws that take effect this month. The cottages, or “granny flats,” can be attached or detached from the main house, Chris Nichols of Capital Public Radio reported.

“As you start to sprinkle these things throughout neighborhoods, you can start to put a pretty big dent in the housing shortage at least at the local level,” Matthew Lewis, a spokesman for California YIMBY, told Nichols.

Other states with single-family zoning in the legislative crosshairs in 2020 include Virginia and Maryland, where House Delegate Vaughn Stewart says upzoning can correct social-justice issues, as well as housing problems. “For too long, local governments have weaponized zoning codes to block people of color and the working class from high-opportunity neighborhoods,” Stewart told Kriston Capps of CityLab.

Supporters face opposition not only from urban planners and homeowners, but also people who say such decisions should be made at the local level, not legislated by the state.

Regardless of how a property is zoned, however, some people still question whether the home sitting at its center should house only one family in a time of rising inequality. Writing for Curbed, blogger Kate Wagner asked, “Should we still be building single-family homes?” and ponders whether doing so is immoral.

Without taking a stance, she concludes, “That many existing single-family homes could be densified by adding accessory dwelling units or by breaking them up into apartments makes it impossible to see single-family homes as either purely good or purely bad — or to ignore their potential to address some of the problems we face.”