Today’s Solutions: March 03, 2024

Housing costs in many US cities have risen beyond reach for millions of Americans, and evidence suggests that zoning restrictions on how much housing you can build on a plot of land are largely to blame. That’s why urbanists were thrilled when California’s capital of Sacramento voted to change zoning laws that will allow four homes to be built on land that had permitted just one before.

For a homeowner in a pricey housing market, choosing to subdivide a single-family home or building a backyard apartment such as these can be a financial no-brainer. The problem, however, is that zoning reform has to be passed at the state- or city-level, and oftentimes the voices of people who could benefit from such zoning reform are drowned out by opponents who are more privileged and influential.

To help local stakeholders overcome the political obstacles that stand in the way of changing zoning laws, John Myers and Michael Hendrix of Bloomberg’s CityLab suggest what they call “hyperlocal zoning reform.”

As described in CityLab, the idea here is that local governments give streets and blocks the right to decide for themselves if they want to allow denser housing. Neighbors could pick from a menu of modest reforms, from reducing minimum lot sizes and green-lighting “granny flats” to allowing missing middle housing and apartments. A single street or block could simply hold a vote and reach a goal the city sets—let’s say a 60 percent “yes vote” from residents. That way, local stakeholders can at least vote to get what they want without cities or states having to reform their housing laws.

Hyperlocal zoning reform won’t solve America’s housing crisis, but allowing denser housing on particular streets or neighborhoods could help to end it.

Sacramento isn’t the only city to vote and change single-home zoning laws. The capital joins the cities of Minneapolis and Portland in making the change, something we wrote about back in August 2020.

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