Is it time to end single-family zoning?

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Although politics are important to me, I see absolutely zero benefit in discussing politics on social media or in this blog. For that reason, I raise this topic with some apprehension and definitely without taking a political position. I raise it for educational purposes only.

I invite you to put this term in your favorite search engine: “terminating single-family zoning”. You will find articles that range in tone and opinion from, “The conservative case for ending single-family zoning” to “Dems are set to abolish the suburbs”. The arguments are all over the place! 

My purpose in raising this topic is simply to ensure South Carolina real estate practitioners have it on their respective radars. Like most extreme changes, this one is likely to be very slow to make it to The Palmetto State, but it’s important for us to be prepared to address if and when it arrives at our borders.  

One interesting perspective comes from Journal of the American Planning Association (Volume 86, 2020 – Issue 1) which argues that the privilege of single-family homes “exacerbates inequality and undermines efficiency” by making it harder for people to access high-opportunity places and contributing to shortages of housing in expensive regions. In many cities, the paper argues, single-family zoning prevents housing development where development would be most beneficial and instead pushes expansion into denser, lower income neighborhoods, onto polluted commercial corridors, and into the undeveloped land outside city boundaries. The authors have no illusion that making this change will be simple or that every city can handle the controversy the same way.

Arguments against eliminating single-family zoning include the idea that most Americans prefer detached single-family houses, that it creates more aesthetically pleasing neighborhoods, that it protects against excessive density, and that eliminating it will be impossible. Many arguments are made against constructing a housing tower next to existing detached homes. But counter arguments are made that removing single-family zoning might reduce rather than increase the prevalence of high-rise development because tall buildings are a response to scarcity of development-friendly parcels.

The conservate argument against single-family zoning is apparently that there is no greater distortion of the free market than local zoning codes, and that there are few bureaucracies doing more harm to property rights and freedom than local zoning officers.

See what I mean when I said the arguments are all over the place?

That being said, jurisdictions in California, Washington State, Oregon, Massachusetts, Minnesota, and Maryland are apparently considering loosening zoning restrictions. In one of his first actions after surviving an election seeking to oust him from office, California Governor Gavin Newsom essentially abolished single-family zoning throughout California and signaled his approval of legislation seeking to increase California’s housing production.

I doubt we will deal with this issue any time soon, but proactively becoming familiar with the arguments on all sides will only improve our ability to discuss the issues when the time comes.