If you think current zoning issues are controversial, just wait.

There's a growing movement in urban areas of the country to eliminate R-1 single family zoning. Depending on the details, new laws would mandate a mix of housing types in a development, doing away with the traditional single-family subdivisions that have dotted America since the 1950s.

I can hear the chorus: "There goes the neighborhood!"

Maybe. But it's a real movement that getting a foothold in many major towns and some states. Just a matter of time until it reaches suburbs and growing rural areas.

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One regional example of this trend is currently being fought in North Carolina. This year, a bipartisan group of legislators in that state introduced two bills that would radically change single-family zoning rules in North Carolina. 

According to one newspaper article about that legislation, the law has four main impacts:

1. Allow a mixed use of housing along with single-family homes, including duplexes, triplexes, townhomes, etc. in a move that would preempt local zoning rules.

2. Allow homeowners in the state to build and rent out accessary dwelling units (AUDs), such as in-law apartments, garage apartments and small cottages. The state legislation would overturn local government rules that make doing AUDs difficult, if not impossible. We're already hearing about efforts in this area to allow more AUDs as people want to make space for family members, or to generate extra income. A recent zoning variance in Commerce was a classic example where local rules made an accessory unit almost impossible to do.

3. Re-balance the power between property owners and local governments in a way that weakens local government control over housing developments. Critics say zoning rules have gone too far.

4. Weaken strict local zoning rules that make mixed housing developments difficult.

In short, the legislation would create statewide zoning standards and severely weaken the control over zoning that has been traditionally left to local governments.

Not surprisingly, many local government officials in North Carolina don't like the proposed legislation.

But it may be coming anyway. It's part of a national trend to fill the gaps of what some urban planners call the Missing Middle Housing.

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In 2019, Oregon became the first state to eliminate exclusive single-family housing statewide.

Also that year, the city of Minneapolis changed its zoning to allow for multi-unit housing in areas that were traditionally single-family.

Other states are also looking at various forms of zoning changes that would promote more housing diversity within developments, a move that could make single-family subdivisions a relic of the past.

Another possible influence: President Biden's infrastructure proposal has incentives for cities to change their zoning laws to allow for multi-family housing next to single-family homes.

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So what's behind this move to dilute traditional single-family subdivisions with mixed-density housing?

There appears to be several trends merging that have created this dynamic:

1. A fear of climate change. Some proponents of these zoning changes have long promoted higher-density housing in urban areas as a way to decrease pollution by having less reliance on automobiles and greater use of public transit. And some argue that traditional single-family developments have a negative environmental impact  on the landscape by creating a lot of impervious paving for streets, sidewalks and driveways and the need for higher volumes of water for large lawns.

2. A call for more affordable housing. Housing prices are currently skyrocketing and housing affordability has become an increasingly hot topic. The move to allow more AUDs is one way to provide cheaper rent for some people. Proponents of higher-density housing say that will also create more affordable homes and apartments. 

3. A call for more equitable access to housing for minorities. Racial issues revolving around equity have become a hot social topic in recent years, including equitable access to housing. Although it's now illegal to redline housing to keep minorities out of white neighborhoods, housing affordability often has the same effect. Zoning rules that demand larger, more expensive homes in a development make it difficult for working-class and minority families to live in those neighborhoods.

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But critics of the move to dilute local control over housing and to eliminate single-family developments have a lot of talking points, too:

1. The move toward statewide zoning rules would eliminate local control and local citizen input. All communities are different and have different housing needs and dynamics; a one-size-fits-all zoning plan would greatly undermine the community's voice and ability to shape how it grows.

2. While most people agree that affordable housing is a worthwhile goal, critics of these ideas say eliminating exclusive single-family developments won't automatically create more affordable housing. In some areas, especially in urban areas where land is expensive, replacing one single-family home may indeed create three or four new townhomes or multiplexes, but those might be built for more wealthy clientele, negating any affordability benefits. 

3. Likewise, eliminating racial disparities in housing is a worthy goal, but simply mandating a mix of housing densities within a development won't completely solve that problem. The problem isn't just about race, it's about income.

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I'm not sure Georgia will fast-track this kind of effort. Housing density issues tend to be focused in more liberal states — and even there, it's been controversial. There are a lot of white liberals who preach about affordable housing, but not in their own neighborhoods.

Still, Georgia's Republican legislature hasn't been hesitant about weakening local government authority on a wide variety of issues. We saw that last year during the Covid crisis when the state overruled local governments on Covid restrictions.

But there are problems with single-family housing that could create a groundswell of support for additional state oversight.

For one, the cookie-cutter, cheap, high-density housing being thrown up in many suburban communities might as well be multi-family they're built so close together. Developers who build only for cheap and quick are undermining the value of single-family housing.

And there's a growing push for multi-family housing even in rural areas. Not everyone wants a yard to mow. There is a growing trend for townhomes and apartments and that trend appears to be growing in this area.

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Georgia probably won't do away with exclusive single-family developments any time soon, but they aren't the ideal they once were on the American landscape.

The blandness and sameness of suburbs has eroded the communities they engulfed. Towns and communities that were once unique begin to all look the same until you can't tell where you are — is this Atlanta or Denver? Who knows, single-family suburbs all look the same.

Still, owning a single-family home has been the American dream for six decades. State laws may undermine that process, but it will take a lot more than laws to change the cultural values surrounding single-family ownership.

Mike Buffington is co-publisher of Mainstreet Newspapers. He can be reached at mike@mainstreetnews.com.

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