Capital Studios micro-units in Austin, Texas

Localities can foster more inclusive communities by revising their zoning codes to allow for a greater variety of housing types.

Zoning regulations that permit a full range of housing choices, including lower-cost options like apartments, accessory dwelling units, factory-built homes, smaller houses, micro-units and homes with fewer parking spaces, are essential to meeting the affordability needs of a diverse population.

How it works

Zoning ordinances are the chief tools for implementing a community’s long-term land use vision. In specifying what types of residential development are allowed in a community, where they can be located and at what scale, zoning regulations have a major impact on housing affordability.

While an ordinance’s list of “permitted residential uses” directly affects the diversity of housing in a community, zoning controls such as density limits, maximum floor area ratios, height limits, minimum unit sizes and parking requirements also shape the mix of housing choices in a community by impacting the scale of housing supply and the feasibility of building lower-cost housing. Parking requirements, for example, necessitate that a developer either encumber a portion of land for parking or build a structured parking facility above or below ground, which can reduce the amount of housing that can be built and/or increase the costs of construction.

Residential zoning restrictions are often adopted, at least nominally, to protect the existing, physical character of neighborhoods, but frequently their impact, if unintentional, has been to exclude lower-income households and racial minorities from communities.

Zoning artificially restricts the housing market in a manner akin to car manufacturers being required to only sell large SUVs. Many older zoning codes, particularly in suburban communities, permit only single-family homes on relatively large lots, and either prohibit smaller homes outright, or allow them only as “conditional” or “special exemption” uses, subject to case-by-case, discretionary approvals. While less restrictive than an outright ban, conditional allowances present barriers of their own and can make development prohibitively costly or risky.

Many decades-old zoning ordinances are ripe for modernization, particularly in communities that are experiencing strong housing demand or demographic and economic changes. Localities can create a more inclusive zoning code that creates housing opportunities to households of all income levels, races, ethnicities and ages by allowing more housing where it is in demand, and by enabling more types of housing choices “by-right” (i.e., without conditional restrictions).

Where it works

Communities with good access to job markets, high-quality schools, transportation and other infrastructure and amenities are opportune areas for allowing greater housing variety and supporting an economically diverse population.

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