Let's Talk About Zoning
By: Billy Streu
Could zoning reform in Texas be a viable solution for our affordable housing crisis? Even more, could it begin to put a dent in economic and racial inequality? For many years, zoning reform has felt like a big Texas-size elephant in the room.
President Biden’s housing plan includes an action to eliminate exclusionary zoning policies. These policies can look like code requirements for minimum lot size, single residence per lot, and height restrictions. Whether intentional or not, over history, exclusionary zoning has resulted in blocking affordable housing from certain neighborhoods, racial and economic inequality, and areas of concentrated poverty. Texas has had its fair share of these policies over time. So, back to the question at hand…is zoning reform a cure to our housing affordability woes?
Two ideas for zoning reform are implementing inclusionary zoning (IZ) and eliminating single-family zoning. IZ ordinances encourage or require developers to include a specified amount of affordable housing units (such as 10-25%) within a new development. Texas is currently one of three states that has banned mandatory IZ. Single-family zoning allows cities to only permit single-family residences within certain developments.
There are many reasons why both of these reforms are worth consideration. Implementing IZ has the potential to increase the stock of affordable housing. It is also argued that IZ is more sustainable than housing subsidies (e.g., Section 8 vouchers) and can enhance economic and racial integration within well-resourced neighborhoods. Eliminating single-family zoning holds similar benefits. This solution can be more attractive, as it loosens zoning regulation and is less restrictive. Yet, it can provide a way for low-income households to move into neighborhoods with greater opportunities than they couldn’t access before. This is just a short list of the advantages that support these zoning reforms.
Let’s flip the coin now. When considering housing policies, communities must weigh the disadvantages and unintended consequences of reforms such as these. One recent article makes compelling arguments against housing advocates putting too many resources and political power into the zoning discussion. As mentioned above, one hope of eliminating exclusionary zoning is a pathway to greater accessibility for low-income households to higher-opportunity neighborhoods. However, this perspective potentially presumes that upward mobility results from people following opportunity by moving to a new location and minimizes the reality of systemic and structural racism. History reveals another reality that opportunity is more prone to follow white and affluent people. Also, while eliminating single-family zoning can allow for greater housing density, it can unintentionally make a way for even more market-rate units for profit-driven developers.
Now, I understand that this discussion is merely the tip of the iceberg. I am leaving a lot of pieces out of the puzzle, but I don’t have the time (my three kids and schedule run a tight ship) or adequate knowledge to layout a full case for or against zoning reform. My purpose here is to remind us that solving our housing crisis is complicated, and it will take a comprehensive strategy to determine effective and long-term solutions. Some housing advocates believe that zoning reform should be a top priority while others think that we should choose our battles more wisely. We need both approaches in developing a sound housing plan. Zoning reform must always be a part of the discussion, or else we begin to lose sight of our history of racial and social injustices. Yet, we must continue to invite more voices to the table, from all sectors, as we work together to make a way for every Texan to realize their right to a decent and affordable home.
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