Why Do 2020 Presidential Candidates Want to Change Zoning?

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Why Do 2020 Presidential Candidates Want to Change Zoning?

In the second in a series of blog posts examining candidates’ housing policies, Redfin chief economist Daryl Fairweather breaks down the zoning proposals put forward by Cory Booker, Elizabeth Warren, and Andrew Yang

2020 presidential candidates are advocating for changes to zoning laws as a way to combat the housing affordability crisis. Senator Cory Booker and tech entrepreneur Andrew Yang want to remove zoning regulations that restrict new construction of high-density housing (duplexes, triplexes or high rise apartment buildings). Senator Elizabeth Warren wants communities to change their zoning regulations so more housing priced for low-earners is built in wealthier neighborhoods, thereby making them more economically diverse. Each candidate wants to make housing more affordable, but the connection between zoning laws and housing affordability isn’t cut and dry.

Why do zoning laws exist?

Local governments use zoning laws to dictate what types of buildings can be built and how those buildings can be used in a particular area. The idea behind zoning laws is that certain kinds of buildings belong together. A well-designed city would allow families to live close to schools and far away from industrial factories, and transit would be built to bring workers from where they live to where they work and back again.

Why change zoning laws?

Current zoning laws may have gone too far. When some neighborhoods are zoned for only single-family homes and other neighborhoods are zoned for high-density units, zoning laws can reinforce class-segregation because only wealthy people may end up living in the areas zoned for single-family homes, while working-class people are relegated to the high-density zones. A consequence of zoning for growing cities is that building restrictions often limit the number of housing units that may be built, driving up home prices and rents as supply fails to meet demand. In municipalities where more areas are zoned for single-family homes than for apartment complexes and tall condo buildings, working-class residents can see their housing costs rise at an even faster rate.   

Would changing zoning laws make housing more affordable?

Relaxing zoning laws, as proposed by Cory Booker and Andrew Yang, would allow higher density housing to be built in more areas, which would increase the supply of apartments to rent and buy. Although Elizabeth Warren’s proposal differs in implementation, the end result is the same–less zoning for single-family homes and more zoning for high-density buildings. Advocates for higher density zoning argue that an increase in the density of housing would increase the supply of housing and make all housing more affordable because of the laws of supply and demand. But it isn’t that simple. A high-rise apartment isn’t a perfect substitute for a single-family home. Some families only want to live in a house with a yard. Relaxing zoning laws could decrease the supply of single-family homes and could drive up their prices, causing a flight of families from cities and suburbs to exurbs and commuter towns in search of affordable single-family homes.

At the same time, a city with more high-density housing could be more attractive to young professionals without families and to low-earning renters. Those high-density residential areas could be so attractive that migration-in could drive up demand for housing even more and mitigate much of the affordability gains from increasing the supply of high-density housing.

Growing cities with limited land have to increase housing density in order to keep growing and keep accommodating new residents. This forward progress can be hindered by out-of-date zoning laws and a desire to preserve the character or image of a city. Eventually, a city has to increase its housing density or people and jobs will go elsewhere like we are seeing in San Francisco.  

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