The Case for a Federal Zoning Agency

Disparate efforts among state and local jurisdictions are not moving the needle for affordable housing, observes the NHP Foundation's Richard Burns.

Richard Burns, president & CEO,The NHP Foundation

Richard F. Burns

One of the best outcomes of the proprietary research that we conduct each year in preparation for our annual industry Symposium is the unearthing of interesting “food for thought.”

This year was no exception. Many in our recent study agreed that Boomers have a penchant for NIMBYism, particularly by attending meetings to challenge zoning changes. This is important when you factor in other recent reports that show that getting sites rezoned, especially in suburban areas, is not only exceedingly difficult but also creates a major barrier to affordable housing production.

Historically, zoning was used as a tool to build carefully laid-out cities and suburbs. However, it ended up being pernicious, used as an exclusionary tool to keep neighborhoods, towns and cities racially and economically divided.

According to a study by preeminent housing law scholar and Cornell University professor Sara Bronin, who currently chairs the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, “Zoning codes nearly universally establish areas exclusively for single-family housing. Lifting numerical caps in these areas brings the promise of increasing housing supply.”

Might a possible solution to the zoning problem be the appointment of a zoning secretary to head up a new agency? A precedent for this exists with the role Jeff Olivet plays as executive director of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness. Olivet’s department coordinates with 19 federal member agencies, state and local governments, and the private sector to create partnerships, use resources in the most efficient and effective ways, and implement evidence-based best practices to combat homelessness.

Coordinating efforts

A Zoning Agency, backed by Federal legislation, would also need to coordinate with other federal agencies and, most importantly, state, and local governments, for it is primarily at these levels where zoning law is created and enforced. But without legislation that gives this agency certain powers of enforcement, nothing significant can be accomplished.

A move is afoot today to create a state-by-state zoning atlas, an excellent place to get educated on what the zoning atlas website calls “key aspects of zoning codes in an online, user-friendly map.”

Further, the website says, “It will enable comparisons across jurisdictions, illuminate regional and statewide trends, and strengthen national planning for housing production, transportation infrastructure, and climate response.  It will also help the White House, state legislators and others identify where to create zoning reform efforts.”

The creation of a national zoning agency could mean a potential overhaul of the nation’s archaic and often arcane zoning laws, such as those that require generous residential parking, minimum lot sizes, zoned single-family only, etc. They may seem well intended, but the laws contradict fairness by excluding affordable housing and the development of more public transportation. These things can be done intelligently, while preserving the quality of life in these communities.

Freeing up the path to more affordable housing from roadblocks, such as outdated and prejudicial zoning laws, is a crucial part of the mission of all affordable housing providers. We are always on the lookout for practical solutions for our work to expand the preservation and creation of affordable housing for low- and moderate-income people. While the creation of a national zoning agency would not in itself be a panacea, it could be a meaningful advancement of the greater goal of affordable housing for all.

Richard F. Burns is CEO & trustee of the NHP Foundation.

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