A construction crane in front of tall residential buildings in Seattle, with the port's cranes in the background.
A construction crane in Seattle, with the Port of Seattle in the background. Ted S. Warren/AP

No, Zoning Reform Isn’t Magic. But It’s Crucial.

The finding of a new study—that upzoning didn’t quickly increase development in areas of Chicago—shouldn’t make zoning reform any less of a priority.

A new study in Urban Affairs Review, “Upzoning Chicago: Impacts of a Zoning Reform on Property Values and Housing Construction,” has kicked off the latest round of takes, both sanctimonious and sincere, in the urban planning world—particularly the part of it that hangs out on Twitter to discuss the intricacies of supply and demand in urban markets.

Does upzoning (i.e., changing zoning to allow for more intensive land use) increase density, thereby decreasing housing costs? Decreases in market-rate rents in cities like Washington, D.C., and Seattle have been attributed to an increase in supply, which can be induced by upzoning. However, the new paper’s author, Yonah Freemark, finds that after five years of upzoning allowances in certain areas of Chicago, property values have risen without significant additional development.

It isn’t news to those who work on the issue that simply changing a few elements of a zoning code within a small area would not, in isolation, lead to new housing that’s affordable, nor make existing housing more affordable by creating more supply. Advocates recognize that reforming zoning on its own is not, has never been, and never will be a silver bullet.

Numerous factors besides zoning influence housing affordability and urban development. Among other things, the efforts of local residents, relationships between politicians and developers, and state-wide policies can all significantly impact housing prices, the volume of new construction, and whether housing is affordable or if affordable housing gets built.

But people familiar with any of the areas touched by the long tentacles of housing policy recognize that zoning is a necessary procedural step. Zoning restrictions place significant discretionary power in the hands of councils, boards, and courts, and can lead to uneven and inequitable development. The reason why upzoning is so necessary is because other measures—such as the development of subsidized, permanently affordable buildings, or the construction of market-rate buildings to which rent controls could be applied—are often impossible unless zoning is loosened.

Freemark’s paper is largely a discussion of whether upzoning certain areas of Chicago did actually increase density within five years, not whether increasing density makes places more affordable. Increasing supply, on the whole, can be expected to lead to lower rents. But in the study, supply didn’t actually increase, even though it could have.

If upzoning certain places doesn’t result in developers immediately expanding their products to fill their newfound opportunity zones, then what’s going on?

Freemark’s research doesn’t account for the political nature of discretionary development processes. Such processes differ by municipality, but they are generally triggered when someone wants to build something that doesn’t conform with existing laws (and the relevant existing laws are generally zoning laws). In Chicago, aldermanic privilege is so deeply culturally encoded, and demands so much deference, that upzoning particular neighborhoods may not have done much because aldermen’s desires can so heavily influence what does and doesn’t happen.

Planning is inherently political. We believe that a consideration of governance trade-offs, political and social ties, and the ceding of public responsibilities to private organizations should never be left aside when talking about the built environment, even in a purely economic context. Freemark partially acknowledges this:

The real-estate development process is arduous, encompassing negotiation between developers, funders, communities, councilors, and city staff, and requiring site acquisition, design, financing, and public review—all before a permit is issued. This might explain this study’s finding of no short-term impact on permit volume for new housing units.

But the study does not address the political or social nature of development. It does not include a variable that captures political will, public support, or developer’s plans within its model.

Then there’s the matter of time scale. Freemark writes that he found no “medium-term effect” over five years on construction permitting. It is reasonable, on its face and in a technocratic sense, to say that five years is medium-term. Still, countless recent urban projects around the U.S. have taken more than five years to come to fruition. For example, a proposed development of D.C.’s McMillan Reservoir went before the city’s Office of Zoning in 2014. A lawsuit stalled its building permits in 2016; oral arguments will begin next month. To be fair, McMillan’s upzoning is not a given, unlike what Freemark examines in Chicago—it’s a discretionary development. But it’s a prime example of a project that’s both taken more than five years and become entangled in a political and social process.

What Freemark’s paper does suggest is that upzoning can increase the likelihood that a piece of land is seen as valuable for some sort of future use. And we believe that this—making land-use changes in advance of any development occurring—is a better, healthier approach than making land-use changes as a response to a developer’s preference or request.

In other words, the paper shouldn’t be reduced to a “checkmate, YIMBYs” declarative. No one who is intimately engaged with the complexities of affordable housing in America would suggest that zoning is the sole knob to twiddle to increase affordability—and Freemark doesn’t, either. Zoning is targeted because its origins are inherently racist, bigoted, and exclusionary. But, again, it is not the sole input to making housing more affordable. It’s just the one that, by changing it, allows for many other things that make housing more affordable.

Lastly, upzoning is not solely a development tool. It can be a signaling device, or a representation of a city’s values. Minneapolis’s recent abolition of single-family zoning reflects a public commitment to a broad constituency that, through a multi-year master-planning process, vocalized that density is a local value. Baltimore’s elected officials directly invested in decreasing one particular barrier to affordable housing—its cost—by adding an amendment to the city’s charter to fund a housing trust. That planning is inherently political also means there are great opportunities to create more equitable places through civic engagement.

We would do well to better understand what’s happening in our cities, and Freemark’s paper adds to this discussion. Perhaps further research will incorporate additional data about why the effects he describes might occur. But, for now, these findings are inconclusive and in many ways detached from the day-to-day reality of how local-level zoning and planning work. We hope they are not used to validate a continuation of exclusionary practices, or misguided power moves by elected officials in American cities and their suburbs.

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