H Street corridor by Ted Eytan licensed under Creative Commons.

Though we write about zoning plenty on GGWash, it’s a topic that’s been regarded by the wider public as too wonky, too insider, and too jargon-like to figure into everyday life. But zoning literally is everyday life, because it governs what goes where. And it’s circumstantial to affordability, equality, equity, and the distribution of goods, services, and wealth.

Lately, zoning is more buzzword-y than usual because cities like Minneapolis, and states like California and Oregon, are considering changes to their existing zoning regimes. Upzoning—changing zoning laws to make legal taller and/or denser buildings—is increasingly viewed as one way to address high housing costs.

Why upzone? On most of the land in most cities in America, all you can build is a single-family home, typically on a large lot. In her 2014 book, Zoned In the USA, land use and planning scholar Sonia Hirt argues that American-style zoning is exceptional for this reason. As Tracy Hadden Loh showed here, 72% of our region is zoned single-family (this includes the Montgomery County Agricultural Reserve), while 42% of DC alone is zoned single-family.

Image by Tracy Hadden Loh.

Other countries have higher rates of homeownership, and their own land-use restrictions on what things can go where, but none are as prescriptive about separating uses, and none treat single-family zoning with as much disproportionate privilege as we do. Americans’ sense of entitlement toward land has resulted in a reverence toward single-family homes and, Hirt suggests, is in our national DNA:

The issue at hand is what American cultural historian Leo Marx (1991) has called an American “ideology of space” and Dutch comparative geographer Gerrit Wissink (1962) has called the unusual space-relatedness of American culture: the high value that Americans tend to assign to vast spaces and their subjugation to human will. The seed of this explanation dates back at least to Frederick Jackson Turner’s ([1893], 2003) famous, if highly controversial, essay in which he sought to link American’s geography with the American “character.” Turner’s argument was that continuous exposure to the raw edge of civilization made Americans uniquely reliant on self and family. It also made them hostile to government control.

Besides the fact that “subjugating vast spaces to human will” is not a proclivity I consider healthy, the enshrining of single-family homes is increasingly at odds with the realities of 2019 and beyond. Right now, too many people can’t afford housing, and the planet is increasingly warming.

Neither of these parallel crises is helped by the fact that the only thing you can usually build in most American cities is a single-family home, which is on average more expensive than a home in a multiplex, and far worse for the environment. By preventing multifamily homes outright, single-family zoning dramatically curtails the construction of more, smaller homes. Apartment living might not be for everyone, but it shouldn’t be off-limits to build the kinds of neighborhoods we say we love.

In Somerville, Massachusetts, population 80,000, only 22 of the buildings are legal under the current zoning code. Image by Tim Sackton licensed under Creative Commons.

Upzoning throughout a whole city, or perhaps a whole state rather than individual or selective parcels, is increasingly acknowledged as a way to contend with certain aspects of the affordability crisis simply by allowing for more housing. Without upzoning, any hypothetical social housing program would be immediately stymied in the majority of places under our current zoning regime, concentrating poverty even further.

Broad upzoning would be good for the planet, too, because it means that more people can live in places where they can walk or take transit where they need to go. People don’t just disappear, or stop moving to a place. They move as close to what they prioritize—their jobs, good schools, or amenities—as they can afford, and when they can’t afford to be as close as they’d like, they’ll go farther out, not simply vanish.

Zoning caps how many units can go in a given neighborhood, and thus, how many people can live there. Neighborhoods that are expensive are so in part because lots of people want to live in them. Eventually—again, to be as close as they can afford to what matters to them—people will spill over into the next most proximate neighborhood. Eventually, lower- and middle-class people will be pushed out and won’t be able to afford to move in.

Because we have so significantly limited what we can build in our cities, for so long, right now, there’s no such thing as an American city that has run out of room. We should consider making space for, yes, all people, regardless of their class or race.

“One-size-fits-all” might be OK

Regardless of how you feel about upzoning, it may be coming to a city near you. In some ways, this is just returning many cities to a more accurate version of their original character. For all the contemporary stress and finger-pointing around upzoning, many US cities have also downzoned over the past 60 years. As Benjamin Schneider wrote for The Nation:

Los Angeles went from being zoned to accommodate 10 million people in 1960 to 4.3 million in 2010. San Francisco’s 1978 citywide downzoning decreased the number of housing units that could be built in the city by 180,000, equivalent to more than 50 percent of the city’s housing stock at that time.

Schneider notes that in Chicago, where 80% of the city is off-limits to multifamily housing, downzonings have been heavily concentrated in white, wealthy neighborhoods. Under Mayor Bill de Blasio, New York’s zoning changes have followed a similar pattern: Poorer neighborhoods get upzoned, allowing for more development, and wealthier ones get downzoned. That means people who are already relatively advantaged have been legally absolved of their responsibility to share their neighborhood’s resources. In DC, Lanier Heights residents organized to ban more housing in their neighborhood by asking the city to downzone it in 2016.

One-size-fits-all solutions are often knocked as ignorant of the concerns of local communities. But localities have a stronger track record of keeping people out—often via zoning—than building enough homes for the people who live there, or want to live there. Recent maps from DC’s Office of Planning show how the city’s neighborhoods that are disproportionately zoned single-family are also the neighborhoods that have seen the least amount of new housing.

Image by DC Office of Planning.

Plus, as Chicago and New York show, twiddling only particular knobs in certain places says that development is OK in some places (typically disadvantaged neighborhoods) and off-limits in others (typically wealthy ones). Spot or selective upzoning isn’t equitable and won’t make housing more affordable.

A one-size-fits-all upzoning increasingly looks, at this point in time, like a necessary reset button that we will have to push if we are serious about both affordability and climate.

Zoning in DC

Until 2006, DC’s zoning code had not changed for nearly 50 years. That rewrite took, all told, 10 years. By the time it went into effect in 2016, it had spanned the Fenty, Gray, and Bowser administrations. Our zoning rewrite didn’t downzone or upzone anything en masse. It did legalize accessory apartments and scaled back parking requirements. It was just slightly behind the boom in acknowledgement of the connection between affordability, climate change, and zoning’s discontents that has permeated the discourse around upzoning in Minneapolis and California.

Ideally, DC’s zoning code would have progressively upzoned the city, allowing more housing first in planning areas or wards that have resisted it or are legally off-limits, and, after that, increasing the amount of housing allowed in all other neighborhoods as the city continues to grow. Preferably, this would have been accompanied with additional legislation to strengthen tenant protections, like expanding rent-control and TOPA deals, as well as the acquisition of land by the city to be used to build affordable housing.

The Comprehensive Plan, whose framework element is not yet up for vote, does not and cannot address zoning directly. If Mayor Muriel Bowser’s administration is serious about building 36,000 more units by 2035, the measures of her mayor’s order for housing will likely need to be addressed, in part, through upzoning.

It’s not just about building more

Beyond allowing more housing to be built in places where it is currently illegal to do so, there are moral reasons to dismantle single-family zoning. The origins of zoning the United States are far from benign. Euclid v. Ambler, the landmark 1926 case that confirmed the then-emerging practice of separating uses through zoning, famously includes this tirade against apartment buildings (this language is nearly a century old, yet will sound familiar to anyone who’s recently attended a public meeting):

“Very often the apartment house is a mere parasite, constructed in order to take advantage of the open spaces and attractive surroundings created by the residential character of the district. Moreover, the coming of one apartment house is followed by others, interfering by their height and bulk with the free circulation of air and monopolizing the rays of the sun which otherwise would fall upon the smaller homes, and bringing, as their necessary accompaniments, the disturbing noises incident to increased traffic and business, and the occupation, by means of moving and parked automobiles, of larger portions of the streets, thus detracting from their safety and depriving children of the privilege of quiet and open spaces for play, enjoyed by those in more favored localities — until, finally, the residential character of the neighborhood and its desirability as a place of detached residences are utterly destroyed”

In the United States, we used the precedent set by Euclid v. Ambler—that separating buildings based on what they’re used for is both legal and preferred—to justify the use of zoning and other legal mechanisms, like covenants, to spatially separate people from each other on the basis of race. As a result of decades of planning our cities with codes that say that this is OK, we’ve come to see how zoning exacerbates inequality.

That zoning’s application has legally enshrined deep and persistent racial exclusion in America is not up for dispute. Fortunately, we are working toward an increased national understanding that excluding anything but single-family homes is a proxy for excluding other people. When we’re next confronted with the opportunity to make a decision about upzoning or downzoning in DC, we should consider what history has to tell us.

Alex Baca is the Housing Program Organizer at GGWash. Previously the engagement director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth and the general manager of Cuyahoga County's bikesharing system, she has also worked in journalism, bike advocacy, architecture, construction, and transportation in DC, San Francisco, and Cleveland. She has written about all of the above for CityLab, Slate, Vox, Washington City Paper, and other publications.