Cities Start to Question an American Ideal: A House With a Yard on Every Lot

Townhomes, duplexes and apartments are effectively banned in many neighborhoods. Now some communities regret it.

Single-family zoning is practically gospel in America, embraced by homeowners and local governments to protect neighborhoods of tidy houses from denser development nearby.

But a number of officials across the country are starting to make seemingly heretical moves. The Oregon legislature this month will consider a law that would end zoning exclusively for single-family homes in most of the state. California lawmakers have drafted a bill that would effectively do the same. In December, the Minneapolis City Council voted to end single-family zoning citywide. The Democratic presidential candidates Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker and Julián Castro have taken up the cause, too.

A reckoning with single-family zoning is necessary, they say, amid mounting crises over housing affordability, racial inequality and climate change. But take these laws away, many homeowners fear, and their property values and quality of life will suffer. The changes, opponents in Minneapolis have warned, amount to nothing less than an effort to “bulldoze” their neighborhoods.

Today the effect of single-family zoning is far-reaching: It is illegal on 75 percent of the residential land in many American cities to build anything other than a detached single-family home.

That figure is even higher in many suburbs and newer Sun Belt cities, according to an analysis The Upshot conducted with UrbanFootprint, software that maps and measures the impact of development and policy change on cities.

If this moment feels like a radical shift, said Sonia Hirt, a professor at the University of Georgia’s college of environment and design, it was also a radical shift a century ago when Americans began to imagine single-family zoning as possible, normal and desirable. That shift led Minneapolis to look like this:

Minneapolis 70% of residential land is zoned for detached single-family homes

Source: Zoning data for individual cities from UrbanFootprint

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"Cities Start to Question an American Ideal: A House With a Yard on Every Lot"; by EMILY BADGER and QUOCTRUNG BUI J; The New York Times; June 18, 2019

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