How Zoning and Regulations Can Produce Barriers to Housing Affordability


Despite improved conditions in the housing industry, a recent episode from The Hill.TV highlights how communities are still grappling with how to overcome the challenges of housing affordability for many of their residents. Cities such as Washington, D.C., have seen housing prices vastly outgrow household income gains, putting homeownership increasingly out of reach. One of the issues facing some of these areas are single-family zoning restrictions that restrict the types of housing developers can produce to help make homes more affordable in this area.

“Land-use regulations tend to make it so that there’s less housing and more expensive types of housing, like detached single-family homes, than what people would prefer,” shared Emily Hamilton of George Mason University. “A huge focus has rightly been on detached single-family zoning, which means that home builders can only build a single-family home on its own lot, blocking out more affordable types of housing, like apartments or even duplexes or triplexes that allow one piece of expensive land to be shared by multiple households.”

The New York Times examined the amount of single-family zoning in various U.S. cities to showcase the scope of this issue. A little more than one-third of Washington, D.C., for example, is zoned for only single-family detached homes, while cities such as Minneapolis, Los Angeles and Charlotte have between 70% to 85% of their land restricted for detached single-family development. There’s an increased need to update zoning regulations to address a need for “missing middle” housing to provide homeownership options for a greater variety of needs and income levels.

Although changing zoning laws — such as Oregon has done — to permit a greater variety of housing is a key step in the right direction, it’s not the only issue at hand.

“Another reason we don’t see more dense housing in the Washington [D.C.] area is because people in existing neighborhoods don’t want more dense housing in their neighborhoods,” observed Leah Brooks, associate professor at the George Washington University School of Public Policy. “I say that changing zoning laws is necessary, but it’s probably not sufficient to solve the problem.”

The issue of NIMBYism isn’t always relegated to the types of homes that can be built in a neighborhood either; it can also extend to the types of materials that can be used, such as vinyl siding, which can also drive up the cost of a home. Such materials are viable, code-approved options that help provide a variety of housing styles and price points to ensure housing affordability, defined as no more than 30% of a household’s income spent toward rent or a mortgage.

“I think the American Dream is very specific to an individual family,” shared Alex Fernandez, director of advocacy for the Vinyl Siding Institute. “It’s just giving people an opportunity to choose what works for their family.”

Watch the full episode above. Read more about creative solutions to the affordability crisis.