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.
I can hear the chorus: "There goes the neighborhood!"
Maybe. But it's a real movement that’s getting a foothold in many major towns and some states. Just a matter of time until it reaches suburbs and growing rural areas.
One regional example of this trend is currently being fought in North Carolina. This year, a bipartisan group of legislators in that state have introduced two bills that would radically change single-family zoning rules in that state.
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 accessory dwelling units (AUDs), such as in-law apartments, garage apartments and small cottages. The state legislation would overturn local government rules that make doing that 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 case in Commerce was a classic example where local rules make AUDs almost impossible to do without having to spend a fortune.
3. Rebalance the power between property owners and local governments that weaken local government control over housing developments.
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 traditionally left to local governments.
Not surprisingly, 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 planners call “Missing Middle Housing.”
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.
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 families to live in those neighborhoods.
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 dilute 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 wealthier clientele depending on the area.
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.
I'm not sure Georgia will fast-track this kind of effort. It tends to be focused in more liberal states for now and, even there, it's been controversial.
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 may be single-family homes technically, but they might as well be multi-family, they're so close together. Developers that build only for cheap and quick are undermining the value of single-family housing.
And there's a growing push by the old and retired and the young without children to want multi-family housing. Not everyone wants a yard to mow. There is a need for townhomes and apartments and that appears to be growing.
Georgia may not do away with single-family developments anytime soon, but there is a trend where they aren't the ideal they once were on the American landscape. The blandness and sameness of the suburbs has eroded the communities they surround. 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, the suburbs all look the same.
Still, there will always be a place for single-family homes in America. They're not for everyone, but they have been the American idea for over six decades.
It'll take more than changing laws to change the public's taste in housing.