- Zoning is a set of municipal laws or regulations that govern how property can and cannot be used in specific geographic locations.
- Zoning has been used both as a tool to build cities and as an exclusionary practice to keep neighborhoods, towns, and cities racially and economically divided.
- Zoning reform is needed to resolve many current issues including housing shortages, divided cities, and neighborhood amenity disparities (such as “food deserts”).
Zoning laws are found in virtually every municipality in the United States, affecting land use, lot size, building heights, density, setbacks, and other aspects of property use. This reference page discusses the basics of zoning and how zoning is regulated; the impact of zoning on towns and cities, including the impacts of exclusionary zoning and the way that zoning has been used as a tool to keep businesses or people out of certain areas; and a discussion of zoning reform and the ways zoning reform can address issues of racially divided cities, housing availability, and housing affordability.
See References for more information.
NAR Library & Archives has already done the research for you. References (formerly Field Guides) offer links to articles, eBooks, websites, statistics, and more to provide a comprehensive overview of perspectives. EBSCO articles (E) are available only to NAR members and require a password.
What is Zoning and Why Do We Need It? (Colorado Springs Gazette, Oct. 19, 2020)
“Zoning refers to municipal or local laws or regulations that govern how real property can and cannot be used in certain geographic areas. For example, zoning laws can limit commercial or industrial use of land in order to prevent oil, manufacturing, or other types of businesses from building in residential neighborhoods.”
CityLab University: Zoning Codes (CityLab, Aug. 6, 2019)
“Although invisible on land and inscrutable on paper, municipal zoning codes have a tremendous impact on the form of cities—and by extension, on the way people live in them. Today, these arcane regulations are seeing unprecedented levels of public scrutiny. After decades of embracing strict zoning rules, several cities and states want to relax them to make it easier to build housing and create more environmentally friendly communities. This edition of CityLab University offers an overview of zoning and defines the key terms related to it in America, so you can better understand the rules that are shaping your city and neighborhood.”
Zoning and Your Business Location (The Balance, Feb. 26, 2019)
“Every local business needs to consider zoning. Whether you are setting up your business in your home, buying or building a new office or warehouse facility, zoning comes into play as a big factor…As you look for business locations, keep in mind the different types of zoning you may encounter. Knowing how a property is zoned can help you avoid problems and give you information to help you seek changes.”
Zoning Board Basics (University of Wisconsin Land Use Training & Resources, 2019)
“Every community that has adopted a zoning ordinance must appoint a zoning board of adjustment or appeals. The zoning board of adjustment or appeals functions like a court, and must follow state laws and local zoning ordinances. The zoning board cannot change or ignore any part of the zoning ordinance or state laws, but must apply the laws as written. Zoning boards do not get to change local zoning laws. If a person wants to change the zoning laws they should run for office to be on their county, city, village or town board, which are the bodies that decide on the content of the local zoning laws.”
Zoning Basics (Planning Commissioners Journal)
“In this issue, Planning Commissioners Journal columnists Mike Chandler and Greg Dale go over the basics of zoning…As always, if you have a specific question about how your own community’s zoning process operates, please consult with your planning director or legal counsel.”
Impacts of Zoning
Exclusionary Zoning: Its Effect on Racial Discrimination in the Housing Market (US White House, Jun. 17, 2021)
“One area that is particularly important for economic well-being and wealth accumulation is housing. Families who can purchase their own home in the neighborhood of their choice at a fair price and see the value of their home grow over time do better economically in the long run. But numerous policies have systemically discriminated against Black families who wish to pursue that path. This blog focuses on one of these policies: exclusionary zoning laws, which have played a role in causing racial disparities in the housing market.”
Is Zoning a Useful Tool or a Regulatory Barrier? (Brookings, Oct. 31, 2019)
“Local regulations over how land can be developed are under fire for their role in escalating housing costs. Research shows that overly restrictive zoning makes it hard for developers to build new housing, driving up rents and prices…In this article I describe how zoning laws regulate housing, discuss the strengths and limitions of different approaches to measuring zoning stringency, and outline an alternative framing of the problem.”
How Zoning Shapes Our Lives (Housing Matters, Jun. 12, 2019)
“Zoning rules dictate more than just how we can use and build on land. They also shape our communities and our lives. Land use laws determine where we can find housing, schools, and parks—and who has access to them. Policymakers initially created zoning codes to protect public health—for example, to stop residents from getting sick from living too close to factories. But from the start, zoning has separated more than just land uses. It has also separated people.”
Inclusionary Zoning (Bloomberg CityLab, Jul. 17, 2018)
“Inclusionary zoning (also sometimes called “inclusionary housing”), is an increasingly popular way to produce affordable housing through the private market. And while these programs only produce enough units for a lucky few low- and moderate-income households, they remain one of the main tools cities have for maintaining neighborhood diversity, and keeping high-opportunity areas affordable.”
Zoning, Land-Use Planning, and Housing Affordability (CATO Institute, Oct. 18, 2017)
“Local zoning and land‐use regulations have increased substantially over the decades. These constraints on land development within cities and suburbs aim to achieve various safety, environmental, and aesthetic goals. But the regulations have also tended to reduce the supply of housing, including multifamily and low‐income housing. With reduced supply, many U.S. cities suffer from housing affordability problems. This study uses regression analysis to examine the link between housing prices and zoning and land‐use controls.”
Upzoning Chicago: Impacts of a Zoning Reform on Property Values and Housing Construction (Urban Affairs Forum, Mar. 29, 2019)
“Upzoning—a policy that increases the allowed scale of new construction—has recently attracted considerable attention from policymakers…The theory is that allowing additional new construction will bring more housing, increase housing affordability, and reduce the class and ethnic segregation that plagues most U.S. cities. But it’s also a policy being contested by some, often neighborhood groups, who worry that upzoning will encourage real-estate speculation and thus spur displacement. In [this] research, [the author] delves into this question of what happens in neighborhoods once they are upzoned through a case study of a series of upzonings in Chicago…By examining parcels that were upzoned and comparing them to equivalent, nearby parcels that weren’t, [the author] set out to determine what, exactly, happens in the short term after an upzoning.”
Build Race Equity Into Rezoning Decisions (Brookings, Jul. 13, 2021)
“Housing discrimination on the basis of race has been outlawed for more than half a century, yet Americans still reside in neighborhoods significantly divided by race and, to a lesser extent, class. Although this state of affairs has multiple causes, one of the most important is land use regulations that are used by cities and towns to exclude certain types of people from neighborhoods and even entire towns. Zoning in particular is one such tool.”
Advocating for Zoning Reform (American Planning Association, May 20, 2021)
“APA supports zoning code reform to ensure communities can provide residents with greater housing choice at lower costs. Overhauling outdated local and state codes that set parking minimums, restrict multifamily housing options in certain neighborhoods, and prohibit innovative solutions like accessory dwelling units (ADUs) are problematic and should change. As communities and states take fresh looks at broken growth tools, planners can be champions for improving local rules using good plans to drive real change.”
State and Local Policy Strategies to Advance Housing Affordability (National Association of REALTORS®, Feb. 17, 2021)
“The United States faces a severe and worsening housing affordability crisis that increasingly affects every state and almost every major community in the nation. The two most recent economic shocks, the Great Recession and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, profoundly exacerbated housing affordability across the country…This paper intends to shed light on the scope and scale of the problem in communities across the country and to highlight a selection of policy pathways that communities can and should consider pursuing in order to support local affordability.” Pages 24-27 highlight how zoning reforms can “potentially be used to bolster local economies and government revenues, while increasing the supply of housing without significant upfront budget outlays.”
A Fair Shake for Community Residences (Planning, Feb. 5, 2020) E
“This article discusses need for planning commissioners to revise zoning code to comply with the U.S.'s Fair Housing Act (FHA). It mentions that FHA requires cities and counties to make a reasonable accommodation in their zoning codes and other policies to allow community residences to be located in any residential district.”
Cities Start to Question an American Ideal: A House with a Yard on Every Lot (The New York Times, Jun. 18, 2019)
“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… 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.”
A searchable archive of zoning laws, land use development codes, building design codes, and other influential documents, ranging from 360 BC to modern times
“The Form-Based Codes Institute (FBCI), a program of Smart Growth America, is a professional organization dedicated to advancing the understanding and use of form-based codes.”
Smart Growth America is focused on “reinvesting in America’s downtowns and main streets…creating homes fro families of all income levels alongside one another in locations where daily needs are close by.” They take an interdisciplinary approach to creating solutions, proposing legislation, and specifically reforming zoning laws to allow for the encouragement of mixed building type and use neighborhoods.
eBooks & Other Resources
The following eBooks and digital audiobooks are available to NAR members:
Community Planning: An Introduction to the Comprehensive Plan (Audiobook, eBook)
A Better Way to Zone: Ten Principles to Create More Livable Cities (Audiobook, eBook)
Missing Middle Housing (eBook)
Books, Videos, Research Reports & More
The resources below are available for loan through Member Support. Up to three books, tapes, CDs and/or DVDs can be borrowed for 30 days from the Library for a nominal fee of $10. Call Member Support at 800-874-6500 for assistance.
Walkable City Rules (Island Press, 2018)
City Rules: How Regulations Affect Urban Form (Island Press, 2012)
City Economics (Harvard University Press, 2005)
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