Housing costs slide local zoning under states’ microscopes

At least four states are considering forcing cities to allow denser development.
A sprawling neighborhood in Colorado Springs, Colo., on Wednesday, Nov. 23, 2022. (AP Photo/Thomas Peipert, File)

At least four states are considering forcing cities to allow denser development, as skyrocketing housing costs push more elected leaders to challenge the suburban ideal of a single-family home.

Proposals in Arizona, Montana, New York and Washington would allow smaller lot sizes, require more housing near transit, or prevent cities from requiring detached homes.

Democratic and Republican supporters say local zoning has limited the housing supply and driven up rents and home prices. They say it’s time for states to intervene.

“We have to do things differently,” said Washington Rep. Jessica Bateman (D). “If we continue to do things the same, we’re going to continue to get the same results.”

Bateman’s bill would require small cities to allow duplexes, large cities to allow fourplexes, and all cities to allow denser housing if units are affordable or within a half mile of schools, parks and major transit stops.

The state moves are setting up a clash between different levels of government. Local leaders and their advocates fiercely oppose bills that would limit their power to decide if, and how, communities grow.

Washington cities “don’t believe that lawmakers from Olympia can pass policy that’s sensitive enough to take into account all of the unique, individual situations that face them,” said Carl Schroeder, government relations deputy director for the Association of Washington Cities.

The association supports denser housing around transit and other amenities, Schroeder said, and is working with Bateman to make her bill more flexible. The group currently opposes the bill because it would allow more housing on every residential lot.

Schroeder said dozens of Washington cities have changed zoning rules to encourage duplexes and other “middle housing” in single-family neighborhoods, but haven’t seen much interest from developers.

“We don’t think a pure zoning approach is actually going to accomplish much,” he said.

Housing cost 30% of U.S. households more than 30% of their income in 2020, according to the latest Census data analyzed by the Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University. Fourteen percent of U.S. households spent more than half their income on housing that year.

Momentum for challenging zoning has grown since 2019, when Oregon began requiring cities to allow accessory dwelling units and California made it easier for ADUs to get approved. Sometimes referred to as “granny flats,” ADUs are separate living spaces considered part of an existing property.

California legislators have since enacted a slew of other laws that lift local land use restrictions, such as a 2021 law that made it easier for homeowners to divide their property into two lots and build up to four housing units on the land. Massachusetts legislators in 2021 passed a law requiring Boston-area towns and cities served by the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority to allow multi-family housing.

Eight states now require localities to allow ADUs, said Emily Hamilton, senior research fellow and director of the Urbanity Project at the libertarian-leaning Mercatus Center at George Mason University.

California lawmakers have at times had to pass follow-up zoning bills to close loopholes and address unforeseen problems, said Sen. Scott Wiener (D). He advised lawmakers in other states to consult with land use attorneys, affordable housing developers and city planners.

“They can sometimes look at something and say, ‘This is how this is going to play out in real life,’” he said of housing professionals.

This year, a Montana bill sponsored by Rep. Katie Zolnikov (R) would require properties served by city water and sewer systems to have a minimum lot size of 2,500 square feet. She said she hopes the bill, which she worked on with conservative groups such as Americans for Prosperity, will encourage developers to build smaller homes that are more affordable for first-time buyers.

“It’s a completely free-market solution,” she said of her bill. “If the demand for smaller lots is there, then the market will reflect that, and people will develop.”

New York Gov. Kathy Hochul (D) has proposed perhaps the most ambitious zoning overhaul. She wants to require upstate towns and cities to increase housing units by 1% every three years and downstate towns and cities to increase units by 3% over the same period. She also wants to require cities to allow denser, multi-family development close to rail stations.

City leaders oppose Hochul’s proposed preemption of local zoning and question whether her growth targets make sense for all cities, towns and villages in the state, said Peter Baynes, executive director of the New York State Conference of Mayors and Municipal Officials.

Baynes said some cities could struggle to hit her targets because they lack developable land or demand for new homes. “Is there enough demand for housing, and is there enough interest from developers to build that housing?” he asked.

Washington’s Bateman has proposed similar zoning bills before, but they have never made it beyond committee hearings. She said this year could be different.

This year’s bill is starting in the House housing committee, not the local government committee. It could win support from younger, newly elected lawmakers, Bateman said. And it varies multi-family housing requirements by city size, a change she said she made after talking to the Association of Washington Cities.

Washington lawmakers will consider at least two bills this year that would preempt local zoning. One would allow single-family lots to be split in two and another would allow multi-family housing near transit stops.

Housing has become so expensive that middle-class workers are getting priced out of their communities, Bateman said.

“The public is tired of this problem not being solved,” she said. “And they recognize that we have to do something really proactive about it.”