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Governments Should Ease Up on Zoning Restrictions

December 26, 2018

by Christina Sandefur
December 26, 2018

This month, the Minneapolis City Council voted to eliminate single-family zoning and allow duplexes and triplexes in every neighborhood. Easing citywide zoning restrictions to this degree is a novel move for a major U.S. municipality, especially when over half the city is zoned single-family only. Meanwhile, Oregon could become the first to ban single-family zoning statewide. This has broad support from the Speaker of the House Tina Kotek (D-Portland), who is pursuing legislation that would end single-family zoning in cities of 10,000 or more.

These changes will have profoundly positive consequences for housing affordability, a problem that was largely created and exacerbated by regulations that make it prohibitively expensive to build, improve, or own housing. They will also help to undo decades of race and class segregation.

Nearly a century ago, the Supreme Court upheld the validity of zoning. This not only took the choice of how to use land from its owner and gave it to the majority of the community, but it also had disastrous implications for racial minorities, who were systematically excluded from neighborhoods. As Timothy Sandefur and I discuss in our book Cornerstone of Liberty, many zoning laws—developed and embraced by Progressives—were designed to remove those deemed “undesirable” by their neighbors, including immigrants and people of different races and socioeconomic statuses. Cities nationwide, from Atlanta and Louisville to Chicago and San Francisco, all implemented racial zoning practices. Although the Supreme Court struck down explicit race-based zoning in 1917, cities employed indirect methods, from expulsive zoning to eminent domain.

Indeed, recent studies have shown that zoning policies continue to bear a strong relationship to racial segregation. Today, about half of Los Angeles is zoned exclusively for single-family homes, which has both worsened the city’s affordable housing crisis and created and perpetuated racial inequity.

Government uses zoning to impose other preferred social values on the general public. For example, so-called “obesity zoning” attempts to impose health and lifestyle choices on the public by restricting the number of fast food restaurants allowed within a given area. The federal Centers for Disease Control have published recommendations for local officials, including “changing the locations where unhealthy competitive foods are sold,” “limit[ing] advertisements of less healthy foods,” and creating “traffic calming approaches (e.g., speed humps and traffic circles)” to encourage people to walk instead of drive. Of course, such zoning restrictions shut down locally owned businesses, restrict consumer choice, and reduce the value of property zoned for business uses.

NIMBYs and bureaucrats often defend restrictive zoning policies in the name of “preserving neighborhood character.” But as zoning’s troubled history illustrates, such a descriptor is often a thinly veiled code for eradicating “undesirables,” and determining who is and is not suitable to stay in a given neighborhood is not the proper function of government. Cities should focus their zoning efforts on enforcing legitimate rules against nuisance instead of passing broad restrictions that impose bureaucrats’ preferred aesthetic and social values and violate the rights of property owners and tenants. It’s encouraging to see that, after all these years, local and state lawmakers are finally starting to understand that it’s very dangerous to allow government to decide whom we can invite into our private homes.

Christina Sandefur is the Executive Vice President at the Goldwater Institute.



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