Among policy wonks, "zoning reform" has become a euphemism for state changes to zoning enabling laws that shrink local control in the hopes of expanding housing supply. The basic rationale is that piecemeal reforms to individual local zoning codes simply aren't enough to make a dent in the housing crisis. But, as planners know, state preemption is often a contentious subject, and in the realm of planning, one that has a complicated history.
In the May issue of Zoning Practice, "In Defense of Local Zoning"Harvey Jacobs cautions against reducing the current debate to a binary of anti-zoning reformers versus pro-zoning local officials. He reminds us of the last time there was a major movement to preempt local control over certain planning functions and urges planners to use their knowledge and expertise to resist simplistic solutions.
From Quiet Revolution to Zoning Abolition
The 1960s and 70s were a heady time for planners. In the wake of rapid social and demographic changes, several states dramatically overhauled their approaches to land-use planning and regulation. While this "Quiet Revolution" was largely over by the mid-1980s, Jacobs explains its significance to the current debate.
Then, as now, reformers wanted to preempt aspects of local zoning in furtherance of broader policy goals. States, such as Hawaii and Oregon, created new state oversight bodies and mechanisms to implement a more consistent approach to "growth management." But, as Jacob suggests, in some cases, they also unleashed a cat-and-mouse game of state-imposed standards and local countermeasures that subverted the intent of those standards.
So, what are the chances that current calls for zoning preemption, or an outright abolition, will result in a straightforward improvement to land-use regulation (as a policy tool) and a dramatic expansion of housing supply as a downstream outcome? Jacobs contends that neither is likely to happen without first acknowledging that local zoning is not, inherently, the problem.
Zoning is a powerful tool. But its power isn't tied to specific policy objectives. As Jacobs notes, both the techniques and policy aims captured by the broad umbrella of "zoning" have undergone significant evolution and transformation since the early 20th century. And continued reforms are necessary.
The real fight is usually over the interests that control zoning (and zoning reform). Jacobs cautions that focusing narrowly on the issue of preempting local control is unlikely to remove the problem of the tool being "captured" by interests that don't align with those of the planning community. Jacobs suggests the path forward is one that recognizes that planners have an important role to play at the state and local level.
APA's partnership with the National League of Cities on the Housing Supply Accelerator has identified local zoning reform as an important piece of a more holistic strategy for expanding housing choice and affordability. But, as Jacobs, Alan Mallach, FAICP, and many others have pointed out, zoning is not the only (or even the most significant) factor in housing market conditions. Planners have a responsibility to help local leaders and community members understand that market transformation won't happen overnight and will require action on many fronts.
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About the Author
David Morley, AICP, is a research program and QA manager with APA and editor of Zoning Practice.