White House nationwide zoning reform effort needs data
The U.S. housing shortfall is painfully evident in cities and towns across the country. Soaring rents and home prices are hitting pocketbooks and prohibiting homeownership, with the biggest burdens falling on the poorest and most marginalized.
Outdated and unsustainable zoning policies nationwide have contributed to the crisis, and the White House’s ambitious plan to respond rightly includes zoning reform as a key pillar. The administration intends to reward local governments that engage in reforms through certain discretionary federal spending programs.
As the White House fills in the details, let’s hope it prioritizes an essential ingredient for the initiative’s success: data. Without nationwide zoning data, the initiative risks being stymied.
The truth is we actually know very little about zoning. For the White House to effectively promote zoning reform, it must know towns’ starting point. Do they already allow small-scale multifamily housing? If so, how much land do they devote to this kind of housing? Are there hidden constraints – things like minimum lot-size requirements, minimum parking mandates, and minimum unit sizes?
The Biden administration needs this information across tens of thousands of jurisdictions with zoning to understand the status quo and to assess which reforms will make a difference. But current information about zoning is both unreliable and scarce.
The National Longitudinal Land Use Survey and other surveys have told us what planners think their codes say. It turns out, sometimes they are mistaken. There have been a few attempts to analyze what the texts of codes actually say. Four projects (in Connecticut, eastern Massachusetts, the San Francisco Bay area, and the Los Angeles region) tie textual analysis to digitized zoning maps. But we need more information about the codes across more jurisdictions, and we need that information to be standardized.
Connecticut offers a cautionary tale. Through a program launched in 2009, the State gave nearly $2 million to towns to create incentive housing zones. Yet as of 2020, the program had resulted in just 28 units of housing being permitted. Some towns wrote zoning text that theoretically created a new zone, but never mapped the zone into existence. What’s worse, exclusionary towns have touted their re-zonings, despite their limited impact. They got away with it because, until the 2021 assembly of a statewide zoning atlas, the State lacked accurate zoning data that exposed these issues.
The White House can avoid the Connecticut experience by first investing in resources to acquire the full scale of data we need.
At my lab at Cornell University, we’ve embarked on an effort to establish a National Zoning Atlas that — once completed — will document important district-specific characteristics, particularly about housing, and will give that information to the public and policymakers in easy-to-understand maps.
Our effort — and the contributions to it from researchers and policymakers nationwide — could help Washington make data-driven decisions. Teams from universities, nonprofits, think tanks, and local and regional agencies are already working on statewide and regional atlases, from Hawaii to Montana to New York. Notably, these efforts are bipartisan, and the Biden administration points out in its announcement that zoning reforms nationally have long been so. (See, for example, the 1991 “Not in My Backyard” report under the first Bush administration.) Our atlas teams include libertarian leads like Montana’s Frontier Institute and right-leaning funders like the Charles Koch Foundation and the Mercatus Center at George Mason University.
A National Zoning Atlas will enable users to determine whether each district allows one-, two-, three, or four-or-more-unit housing, or accessory dwelling units. Perhaps more importantly, it will identify the hidden constraints on housing — the “zoning by a thousand cuts” that include lot and parking constraints, as well as height caps, lot coverage requirements, and floor-to-area ratios, along with occupancy limitations that dictate who can live in what kinds of housing.
When complete, the atlas will enable comparisons across jurisdictions, illuminate regional and statewide trends, and strengthen national planning for housing production, transportation infrastructure, and climate response. Such data will give policymakers in Washington and elsewhere key insight into what’s working, where reforms are needed most, and where funding is best allocated.
Zoning reform itself won’t fix all of the nation’s housing problems. We still need to address the other issues, including financing, that research shows constrains housing supply. But for President Biden’s incentives for zoning reform to be most effective, we’ll need to collect a lot more data about zoning. Hopefully efforts will accelerate as this announcement gives them new urgency.
Sara Bronin, architect and attorney, is a professor in the department of city and regional planning at Cornell University’s College of Architecture, Art and Planning and an associated member of Cornell’s Law School.
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