The concept of a single-family house with its own yard has been considered gospel in the US for the last 50+ years. Homeowners, homebuyers, city governments, media and advertisers embraced this concept to protect “tidy” neighborhoods from denser developments nearby.
HOWEVER, issues such as housing affordability, climate change and racial/financial inequality are causing homeowners, homebuyers, city/regional/state governments, economists, planners, media and advertisers to take another look at this single-family house and yard gospel.
In a recent article for the New York Times, journalists Emily Bader and Quoctrung Bui examined changes being made by various states around the viability of single-family housing in today’s world. Basically, such changes center around single-family zoning restrictions.
Just last December, the Minneapolis City Council voted to end single-family zoning citywide as a way to address the shortage of affordable housing and housing segregation. This ban applies to 70% of the city’s remaining residential land (just 30%) and to 53% of all land in the state of Minnesota.
The state of Oregon is now considering a law that would end zoning exclusively for single-family housing in most of the state. Oregon has long regulated “urban growth boundaries” intended to protect farmland and green space beyond cities but “…the joke goes that people hate sprawl and density…” but, according to Tina Kotek, Speaker of the Oregon House and author of this new zoning bill, “…wages are up, people are working and people can’t find a place to live…at some point, something’s got to give.” Proposed density would be four-plexes across cities with more than 25,000 people and duplexes in towns with less than 10,000 people.
California is considering a bill modeled after Oregon’s law whereby single-family lots could be divided into four units and multi-unit buildings could be built on vacant lots in single-family neighborhoods. Charlotte NC is now looking to Minneapolis to see what might be possible in a city where 84% of residential land is designated for single-family detached housing.
Los Angeles was originally zoned for 10M people in 1960 but by 1990, that number was cut to 3.9M residents by stiffer zoning restrictions. Today, Los Angeles, like many other cities, regularly up-zones individual neighborhoods and properties to allow for additional housing options such as apartments, senior housing, low income housing, multi-unit housing and student housing.
New York City was originally zoned for 15% single family housing in 1916. In fact, the term “single family housing” was not even included in the city’s zoning code until 1938. Today, NYC has a broader plan that, if approved, duplexes and triplexes would be allowed citywide on what are now single-family lots.
Seattle, where 81% of its residential land is zoned for single-family, has recently up-zoned 6% of that land for additional housing options. Washington DC, where 36% of its residential land is zoned for single-family and 33% is designated for row-houses, Chicago (79% for single-family), Arlington TX (89% for single-family) San Jose (94% for single-family) and Sandy Springs GA (85% for single-family) are all considering zoning changes.
In all these places and elsewhere, some people are asking, “Will property values and quality of life suffer?” if such zoning changes take place. Others aren’t asking…they are saying that such zoning changes are “…nothing less than efforts to ‘bulldoze’ neighborhoods.”
And in all these places and elsewhere, others are saying “…such changes are essential to…making high-cost cities more affordable.”