The White House’s national zoning reform effort needs data
The housing shortage in the United States is painfully evident in cities and towns across the country. Soaring rents and house prices are hitting wallets and prohibiting home ownership, with the heaviest 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Outdated and unsustainable zoning policies nationwide have contributed to the crisis, and the White House’s ambitious plan to respond to them rightly includes zoning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 one ingredient critical to the initiative’s success: data. Without nationwide zoning data, the initiative risks stalling.
The truth is that we know very little about zoning. For the White House to effectively promote zoning reform, it needs to know where cities are starting from. Do they already allow small-scale multi-family housing? If so, how much land do they dedicate to this type of housing? Are there any hidden constraints – things like minimum lot size requirements, minimum parking mandates, and minimum unit sizes?
The Biden administration needs this information in tens of thousands of zoned jurisdictions to understand the status quo and assess what reforms will make a difference. But current zoning information is both unreliable and scarce.
The National Longitudinal Land Use Survey and other surveys have told us what planners think say their codes. It turns out that sometimes they are wrong. There have been some attempts to analyze what the texts of the codes actually say. Four projects (in Connecticut, eastern Massachusetts, the San Francisco Bay Area, and the Los Angeles area) combine textual analysis with digitized zoning maps. But we need more information about codes in more jurisdictions, and we need that information standardized.
Connecticut offers a cautionary tale. Through a program launched in 2009, the State has given nearly 2 million dollars to municipalities to create incentive housing zones. Yet, by 2020, the program had only allowed 28 housing units. Some cities wrote a zoning text that theoretically created a new zone, but never mapped the zone. Worse still, exclusionary cities have touted their rezonings, 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 set of data we need.
In my lab at Cornell University, we have embarked on an effort to establish a National Zoning Atlas which, when completed, will document important district-specific features, particularly on housing, and provide this information to the public and to decision makers in a simple way. to understand the maps.
Our effort — and contributions 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 national 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 nationwide zoning reforms have long been so. (See, for example, the 1991 “Not in My Backyard” report under the first Bush administration.) Our atlas teams include libertarian leaders like Montana’s Frontier Institute and right-wing funders like the Charles Koch Foundation. and the Mercatus Center at George Mason University. .
A national zoning atlas will allow users to determine whether each district allows one, two, three or four or more units, or secondary suites. Perhaps most importantly, it will identify hidden constraints on housing – “zoning by a thousand cuts” which includes land and parking constraints, as well as height ceilings, land cover requirements and floor-to-area ratios, as well as occupancy limitations that dictate who can live in what type of housing.
When completed, the atlas will enable comparisons across jurisdictions, illuminate regional and national trends, and strengthen national planning for housing production, transportation infrastructure, and climate response. This data will give policymakers in Washington and elsewhere key insight into what is working, where reforms are most needed, and where funding is best allocated.
Zoning reform itself will not solve all of the country’s housing problems. We still need to address the other issues, including funding, which research shows are limiting the supply of housing. But for President Biden’s push for zoning reform to be more effective, we’ll need to collect a lot more zoning data. Hopefully the efforts will pick up speed as this announcement gives them new urgency.
Sara Broninarchitect and lawyer, is a professor in the Department of Urban and Regional Planning at Cornell University’s College of Architecture, Art and Planning and an associate member of Cornell’s Law School.