Inside the quest to change single-family zoning

Affordability strategy has defenders of the status quo up in arms

National Issue /
Apr.April 23, 2021 07:30 AM

The white colonial at 2 Orchard Road is sorely in need of an update. Its orange and yellow floral wallpaper and abundant wooden cabinetry call to mind the year it was built: 1970.

That same year, a study found, the Connecticut town where it sits, Woodbridge, had severely restrictive zoning and, not coincidentally, was among the state’s most homogenous.

More problematic than the Orchard Road home’s dated decor, some say, is that the affordability and diversity of the largely white enclave northwest of New Haven has hardly changed, either.

To spur reform, the nonprofit Open Communities Alliance, which is leasing the single-family home on 1.5 acres and has the option to buy it at a steep discount, is seeking to raze and replace it with a four-unit building including at least two low-income rentals. The civil rights attorneys behind the effort are calling on Woodbridge officials to permit such multifamily construction throughout the town.

The proposal has caused an uproar. Residents distributed flyers in December warning that the plan would “dismantle” Woodbridge’s zoning and urged the community to take “control” of the town’s future.

The blowback came as no surprise to organizers of the initiative.

“There’s always a range of opposition that runs from people who are only really familiar with myths around affordable housing, to people who are classist and racist, to people who have genuine concerns about the environment,” said Erin Boggs, executive director of Open Communities. “What we tend to see — and what we’ve heard a lot of in Woodbridge — are the same old concerns you hear whenever affordable housing is going into a town.”

Similar fights are playing out throughout the country as cities and states grapple with land use policies that, in some cases, were designed to keep out people of specific racial backgrounds.

Nearly three years ago, Minneapolis became the first major city to allow three-family buildings on lots that had only permitted single-family homes. A similar measure in Oregon forced cities with populations of more than 10,000 to permit duplexes in areas zoned exclusively for single-family. California lawmakers have been trying for several years to make such changes statewide, but cities including Berkeley, Sacramento and San Francisco have taken steps to allow for density.

Selling these changes has been difficult. Headlines about ending single-family zoning are interpreted as plans to end single-family homes. In Minneapolis, red lawn signs sprouted up pleading, “Don’t bulldoze our neighborhood!”

Reform advocates believe some of the resistance to change stems from the same racism that helped drive the creation of single-family communities in the first place. They cite opponents’ usage of euphemisms about threats to neighborhood “character.”

But concerns about easing zoning restrictions are multilayered. Homeowners worry about the effects on property values, infrastructure and quality of life. In communities dominated by single-family zoning where most residents are lower-income or people of color, there are concerns that multifamily development would exacerbate displacement and mostly benefit the real estate industry.

Even some supporters of densification agree it isn’t a one-size-fits-all policy.

“We shouldn’t oversimplify what is entailed when talking about these kinds of changes,” said Elaine Gross, founder of Syosset, New York-based ERASE Racism, a civil rights group that has advocated for lifting single-family zoning restrictions on Long Island. “So as we try to fix the current one-size-fits-all [zoning], we shouldn’t make the same mistake.”

A racist foundation

Housing discrimination has long been embedded in government policy.

The U.S. Supreme Court in 1917 barred city ordinances that prevented a Black person from buying a home in a white neighborhood. But municipalities found ways around the ruling, such as deed restrictions explicitly forbidding anyone not white from residing at the home — a practice the federal government reinforced by requiring such covenants as a condition of financing.

Though such policies were eventually banned, towns and cities also adopted zoning rules that only allowed homes that were unaffordable to most Black families, especially as they lacked access to federal mortgages and subsidies, according to Heather McGhee, author of “The Sum of Us,” an examination of racially discriminatory policies and practices. In many places, that meant no apartments or two-family homes.

In her book, McGhee writes that such policies persist as an “invisible layer of exclusion laid across 75 percent of the residential map in most American cities, effectively banning working-class and many middle-income people from renting or buying there.”

“The effect is that they keep land supply short, house prices high, and multifamily apartment buildings out,” she writes.

ERASE Racism’s Gross said she believes much of the fear around banning single-family zoning restrictions stems from “underlying racism.”

“That’s why a lot of people came to Long Island in the first place,” she said. “They were running away from people of color in the city.”

Gross added, “We have to face up to the monster we created … that we’ve been so narrowly focused on one type of housing, which is single-family.”

Heather Worthington felt the discussion of Minneapolis’ plan for three-family dwellings — which she helped design as its director of long-range planning — often had a “thinly veiled” racial undercurrent in the wealthier parts of town rooted in “privilege” and “white fragility.”

Shaken by the reaction, Worthington left city government after the plan passed and now works as a consultant.

“The progressive dissonance of that moment was deafening,” said Worthingon. “You had people who would self-describe as liberal progressives who were saying, ‘But not in my backyard, not in my neighborhood.’”

Speaking in the midst of the George Floyd trial, she drew a connection between segregationist housing policies and his death. “We know what happened there. And we are feeling like, Why did that happen? But we’re ignoring all these other things that led up to that moment.”

Race has also been central to the debate in Woodbridge, where 75 percent of the population is white, 16 percent is Asian, 6 percent is Hispanic or Latino and just 3 percent is Black, according to the U.S. Census.

Those who oppose the multifamily proposal voice concerns about the infrastructure and water supply in the town of 8,750. Many say they support more affordable housing but want a different approach.

Residents and some officials have balked at the idea that opposing the zoning change perpetuates segregation, as is suggested in Open Communities Alliance’s application.

“Does anywhere in [Woodbridge’s] statutes talk about Blacks or Hispanics or Asians?” asked Town Plan and Zoning Commission member Paul Schatz during a February hearing, according to the Connecticut Mirror. “You essentially called Woodbridge a bunch of racists.”

The “disparate impact rule” under the Fair Housing Act paved the way for legal claims against exclusionary zoning ordinances, even those with no explicit intent to discriminate. But the Trump administration made bringing such cases significantly harder. And getting localities to rezone for more affordable housing has also been difficult, leading to statewide efforts like the one in California.

Timothy Herbst, an attorney who represents a dozen Woodbridge residents who oppose changing single-family zoning, believes supporters of the plan are taking advantage of the national conversation to push a larger agenda.

“They are using the argument of race as a way to completely dismantle local control of zoning,” he said. “They are using Woodbridge as a guinea pig to apply this standard to the entire state of Connecticut.”

Open Communities Alliance is indeed pushing the state to require municipalities to provide their “fair share” of affordable housing.

“The history of what has gone on here is so important,” Boggs said. “The challenge now is can we, through local community action, busting myths, inspire towns and other levels of government to do the opposite? Which is, create diverse and inclusive communities.”

Diverse resistance

Homeownership has long been the primary path for Americans to establish generational wealth. But most fail to understand that racial covenants severely restricted what homes Black families could buy, said Lynetta McElroy, a longtime homeowner in the mostly Black Los Angeles neighborhood Leimert Park.

“Generally, Black parents are not in a position to assist with a down payment for their children. So when we purchase a home, it is quite a big deal,” she said. “To most legislators and developers, it is nothing. To me, it is my home and life savings.”

But McElroy sees eliminating single-family zoning restrictions as a threat to property values and community cohesion in areas like hers, rather than as a path to homeownership for more Black families. She also worries that Leimert Park would lose some yards and trees, exacerbating flooding.

“Originally, the homes in this area were sold with a racial restrictive covenant in the deed,” she said. “Now that the area is majority Black-owned, the legislators’ policies will destroy it.”

In New York City, a proposed planning overhaul turned into a debate over whether addressing inequities would mean eliminating single-family zoning. Some feared that the proposal would not only do that but would “tear down” entire communities. Exasperated, City Council Speaker Corey Johnson spent much of a February hearing denying that.

Barika Williams, executive director of the Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development, agreed, calling it a “red herring” to tie the bill to single-family zoning.

But the reactions from some homeowners speaks to the messaging problem of rezoning for affordability. Supporters must overcome not only latent racism in white neighborhoods but distrust of government and aversion to development from all owners of single-family homes. Minneapolis was able to do so — the City Council voted 12-1 for its zoning change — but the idea has so far generated much more conversation than approved legislation.

Choosing a strategy

For three years and counting, California state Sen. Scott Wiener has been on a quest to upzone transit-rich areas of the state.

In response to criticism that one of his measures circumvented community-based planning, he modified it in December to allow local governments to upzone more easily. Any parcels in “a transit-rich area, a jobs-rich area or an urban infill site” could be readily designated by localities to allow buildings with up to 10 units. But it does not compel them to.

Still, Wiener seems to understand that if locals are allowed to continue the status quo, which has led to California having among the most expensive housing in the nation, they will do so. In February, he proposed a measure that would override zoning that allows multifamily housing in theory but makes it impossible to build in practice.

Opponents see these measures as a power grab by the state. 

 “The net effect of these bills, if they become law, would be that homeownership would become an endangered species,” said Keith Gurnee, a board member of Livable California, a group that opposes Wiener’s bills. “They are pushing the American dream further and further away from those who want to realize it.”

Wiener said they would do the opposite.

“Local control is a meaningless argument,” he said. “The common denominator is that both [bills] will allow more housing, which is what the opposition cares about.”

The state senator said the major zoning issues should be addressed at the state level because in cities, “the political incentives are to not build housing and avoid those fights.”

A November study by New York University’s Furman Center argued that local control of zoning stifles housing production — especially in the suburbs around New York City. Fewer building permits were issued per capita in Nassau, Suffolk, Westchester and Putnam counties between 2010 and 2018 than in most suburban counties in Southern California, the Bay Area, Connecticut, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, the center found.

“There are some communities that are never going to entertain major zoning changes,” said Katherine Levine Einstein, assistant director of policy at the Boston University Center for Antiracist Research. “For those kinds of places, we need state-level preemption.” 

She said messaging around these proposed changes has largely taken two forms. The first focuses on creating “missing-middle housing” to address the dearth of housing options for the middle class. The second is to emphasize that the reforms are a matter of racial equity, providing housing access to communities of color.

But Einstein said that approach can backfire if people feel they are being implicated in perpetuating racist policies.

Another hurdle: concerns that upzonings are a giveaway to developers and do not ultimately help affordability.

“People, understandably, hate developers,” she said.

A 2019 study by the Brookings Institution found that “gentle” increases in density to allow for three- to four-unit homes, townhouses and small-scale apartment buildings can grow housing supply and reduce prices. But in high-cost locations, only certain building types make a difference.

A breakdown of redevelopment costs in Washington, D.C., and likely resale prices showed that a townhouse would be priced essentially the same as the single-family home it replaced, at nearly $1 million. Meanwhile, an apartment in a six-unit condo building would go for roughly $580,000, according to the study.

Anaid Yerena, a University of Washington professor who studies affordable housing policy, said Tacoma has framed its approach advantageously. While its “Homes in Tacoma” proposal notes that 75 percent of the city’s land is set aside for single-family homes, it emphasizes the plan’s aim to create more housing options, notably the “missing-middle” housing type, while complementing existing neighborhood scale.

“When you think about our housing ecosystem, it’s kind of like a game of musical chairs, and there aren’t enough chairs for the people that are trying to play,” Tacoma planning official Jacques Colon told a local NBC affiliate. “And so when we’re talking about this project, we really are just talking about creating the conditions for more units to be put into the housing market, or more chairs into the game.”

When asked about concerns over potential displacement, Yerena said it is important that changes to single-family zoning restrictions be part of comprehensive planning.

“Changing the zoning should not be a single strategy,” she said. “We can’t just walk away and think that everything is going to be fine.”

The market rules

Aaron Eisenberg, an agent with Keller Williams, has watched the number of people vying for homes in Minneapolis increase for five years while available housing stock has remained static. He supports the city’s zoning change — which allows for three units on a lot but does not ban single-family construction — but has yet to see much interest from developers or owners to redevelop properties.

“They don’t seem to be champing at the bit to buy houses, knock them down and build duplexes and triplexes,” he said. “If the market is still asking for single-family houses, that is what developers are going to give them.”

Arnab Chakraborty, a professor of regional and urban planning at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, said cities and states should consider how altering zoning affects low-income, single-family communities where a majority of residents are renters and likely have fewer resources to combat displacement.

“Those who are advocates for low-income communities, I think they should assess how these policies actually pan out,” he said. “I would advise them not to put all of their chips in this basket.”


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