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Zoning Out American Families
Misguided land use regulations are making housing worse and less affordable for the very families they're supposed to help
By Emily Hamilton
Among U.S. households that rent, the share of household income going toward housing costs has been rising steadily since the 1960s. And rent is becoming less affordable fastest for households with children. In a world where so many products are getting more affordable for consumers over time, housing in the most productive parts of the country isn’t following the same pattern.
A great irony of U.S. housing policy is that regulations that are causing worsening affordability problems for families, such as single-family zoning, were once touted as a path to abundance of the type of housing best for children. To make housing more affordable, the government must loosen its grip on what type of housing is built. Freeing homebuilders to serve a wider variety of households at a broad range of incomes is the path to abundant housing. And in the process, we might find that less rigidly planned neighborhoods have benefits for children that extend beyond housing affordability.
A Brief History of U.S. Single-Family Zoning
Prior to the 20th century, the form of U.S. urban development was lightly regulated. In cities, rules intended to promote safety and minimize fire damage limited wood construction for attached structures. Tenement laws set certain requirements for light and safety. In some cities, unconstitutional laws segregated neighborhoods by race. But the use and size of buildings was generally left to private actors to determine.
In 1913, the Supreme Court overturned local rules that zoned land by race. Local policymakers looking for a way to segregate their cities by income—and race indirectly—turned to zoning rules as a way to set high minimum prices for houses in certain neighborhoods. This policy change coincided with Progressive Era activism for much more government involvement in economic planning. From the earliest days of zoning, limiting development exclusively to detached single-family houses on large land parcels was a cornerstone of the policy.
Zoning was framed as a way to create housing that would be appropriate for families. In its justification for adopting the country’s first complete zoning ordinance in 1916, the New York City Board of Estimate and Apportionment explained:
In the crowded tenement districts having stores on the ground floor, the roads are congested with vehicular and push carts and the sidewalks with business encroachments and pedestrians. There is absolutely no place for the child to exercise natural play instincts. Play is as necessary to the child as food and clothing. It is the thwarting of the boy’s craving for play that leads to a large proportion of the juvenile delinquency that comes before the Children’s Court.
City officials left unspoken that many children’s parents couldn’t afford low-density housing. At the time, many legal experts doubted that it was constitutional to limit landowners’ rights to develop their property without compensating them for the resulting reduction in their property value as the New York City zoning ordinance did. But in its landmark 1926 decision Euclid v. Ambler, the Supreme Court upheld zoning with a justification based in part on its supposed benefits for child-rearing:
The coming of one apartment house is followed by others, interfering by their height and bulk with the free circulation of air and monopolizing the rays of the sun which otherwise would fall upon the smaller homes, and bringing, as their necessary accompaniments, the disturbing noises incident to increased traffic and business, and the occupation, by means of moving and parked automobiles, of larger portions of the streets, thus detracting from their safety and depriving children of the privilege of quiet and open spaces for play, enjoyed by those in more favored localities—until, finally, the residential character of the neighborhood and its desirability as a place of detached residences are utterly destroyed.
More recently, in the 1970s the Supreme Court upheld local restrictions on unrelated people living together using a similar justification:
The police power is not confined to elimination of filth, stench, and unhealthy places. It is ample to lay out zones where family values, youth values, and the blessing of quiet seclusion and clean air make the area a sanctuary for people.
While U.S. policy generally prioritizes economic freedom more than other developed countries, our land use regulations are markedly stricter than those of other countries. Nowhere else on earth mandates the low densities that U.S. single-family zoning and lot size requirements combine to create in urban areas. In her book “Zoned in the USA,” Sonia Hirt explains that in the case of single-family zoning, Americans’ spatial individualism trumps their economic individualism.
By taking away the right to build housing that economizes on land, zoning rules limit the amount of housing that can be built and drive up the cost of what does get built. In 1940, attached single-family housing—townhouses or rowhouses—and units in duplexes, triplexes and fourplexes made up nearly a quarter of the country’s total housing stock. Today, their share is down to about 13%.
Even in parts of the U.S. where multi-family housing is allowed, meaning that households can economize on land, most new apartment units are small, with two bedrooms or fewer. North American building codes indirectly ban family-size apartments. Multi-family buildings in the U.S. and Canada are required to have two interior staircases for emergency egress. This leads developers to create apartment buildings with long corridors that have units on each side. In turn, the apartments only have windows on one side, making it infeasible to build large units. Many parts of the world allow tall apartment buildings with a single staircase, making family-size apartments more common and much more affordable than they are in the U.S. Moreover, the two-staircase requirement is not even leading to good fire safety outcomes; in fact, the U.S. has one of the highest fire death rates in the developed world.
Regulations are not the only factor that make the U.S. housing stock what it is. Americans’ relative wealth and abundance of land play a large part in our low-density development. But zoning rules make neighborhoods unresponsive to changing economics. As prices have skyrocketed in the parts of the country where housing is most scarce, we see a stagnant supply of existing single-family houses in neighborhoods that would accommodate more households over time if regulations allowed them to evolve.
Housing Affordability for Families
About one-third of U.S. households rent, a share that has barely budged since 1965. But the share of income that renters spend on rent has increased steadily since then. This trend is even more pronounced in the country’s most productive places—the Bay Area, Boston, Los Angeles, New York, Seattle and Washington, D.C., regions. As of 2019, the median renter household in these “superstar cities” spends 28% of its income on rent, up from 22% in 1980.
For renter households with children, rent is eating up a larger share of their household incomes at an even faster rate: The share of their income that renter households with children spend on rent has increased by 34% since 1980. Policies that were framed as creating an abundance of housing best-suited for child-rearing have led to housing scarcity that perversely affects households with children more than others. The chart below shows rent as a percentage of income for different types of households over time.
Beyond stretching the budgets of households with children, land use regulations may even be reducing the number of children born. Research on the relationship between land use restrictions—including rules limiting development to single-family construction—and family size shows that in places with relatively stringent land use restrictions, women have children later in life and have fewer children overall. This correlation likely rings true for many people in high-cost cities who feel they need to spend several years developing career stability and a financial cushion before having children. Rules framed as a tool to create neighborhoods suitable for children are leading to fewer of them being born.
In parts of the country where housing supply constraints have created severe affordability problems, some neighborhoods that seem ideal for families on paper have become so expensive that households with children are largely priced out. Two neighborhoods in Austin, Brentwood and Crestview, were developed in the 1950s with zoning rules that activists and the courts promoted as kid-friendly policy. Their zoning limits much of their area exclusively to single-family houses. Mature trees and sidewalks even make them pleasant places for walking. But in part because these neighborhoods have become very expensive, only 17% of the houses in these neighborhoods include children, compared to 28% of households across the city.
In the country’s most extreme case of urban housing unaffordability, San Francisco, the share of the population under 18 has shrunk to just 13% as cost pressures have pushed households with children to places where they can afford more square footage. In San Francisco and other high-cost cities, plenty of housing units with multiple bedrooms are home not to families, but to groups of roommates. Due in part to a shortage of apartments, groups of adults rent larger units. These groups can often outbid households with kids since they include more than one or two wage earners. This dynamic pushes many households with children to parts of the Bay Area where long commutes limit parents’ time with their children, or to other parts of the country with less expensive real estate but fewer economic opportunities.
Children and Housing Policy
Local and federal housing policy has undoubtedly led to moreU.S. housing taking the form of detached single-family homes. For households that prioritize this type of housing, its abundance has benefits. But setting aside the issue of affordability, is it even true that detached single-family housing is unambiguously good for the children whose families can afford to live in it?
Detached single-family zoning goes hand in glove with transportation that can carry people long distances quickly. As Kenneth Jackson writes in “Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of American Life”:
The most important characteristic of the automobile suburb was its lower density and larger average lot size as compared with anything ever previously experienced in an urban world. Because the motor vehicle opened up much more land than was possible with public transportation, the price of a square foot of real estate was lower in areas accessible only to cars than in neighborhoods served by good transit.
About 20% of Americans are too young to drive. For them, living in a house with its own yard in a neighborhood of similar houses often means relying on their parents’ cars to get to parks, schools, retail establishments and other children’s houses. To counteract these limitations, some parents are beginning to intentionally create opportunities for their children to have more freedom and independence.
Lenore Skenazy, author of the book “Free-Range Kids,” chronicles and advocates for this trend. It’s probably no coincidence that she developed her philosophy as she raised her own kids in New York City. Her neighborhood, Jackson Heights, has a diverse housing stock including apartment buildings, duplexes and townhouses, along with the occasional single-family house. Because this housing stock facilitates high population density, it’s also among the most walkable neighborhoods in the country with many places its children might go independently.
The decision about what type of neighborhood meets any specific family’s needs must be one that the family makes for itself. But under today’s land use restrictions, the supply of housing in walkable neighborhoods is so constrained that people must pay a high premium to live in them. Liberalizing rules to allow more types of development in well-located neighborhoods would open opportunities for more families to live at a level of density that best meets their own needs.
An Abundance Agenda for Housing Families
Mandating large-lot detached housing development has certainly shifted resources in housing production away from apartments, toward the type of housing policymakers have said is good for children. But paradoxically, under the scarcity caused by zoning rules, households with children are experiencing worsening housing affordability compared with others. Reversing this artificial scarcity requires making it easier to build housing of all types.
Allowing apartments to be built in more places would reduce families’ competition for large units by creating opportunities for more people to rent their own apartments rather than sharing large units with roommates. Legalizing more housing for families in neighborhoods close to job centers requires building code reform that allows for taller single-stair buildings, which would encourage family-size multi-family housing.
This would create opportunities for more of the families that want to live in walkable urban neighborhoods to do so. Examples from Austria to Seoul show that family-oriented apartments are possible when building codes allow large units.
Minimum lot size reform in Houston offers an instructive model for a reform that has facilitated family-size housing construction. In 1998, the city began a process of reducing its minimum lot size requirement from 5,000 square feet down to 1,400 square feet, leading to the construction of tens of thousands of townhouses and detached single-family houses on small lots.
This construction has taken place all over the city, but it’s concentrated in neighborhoods such as Montrose and Rice Military that are close to job centers. One estimate of the effects of this reform finds that allowing housing to be built on smaller lots benefits the typical Houston household by $18,000 over their lifetime.
Liberalizing land use regulations is not just a matter of dollars and cents. Allowing more and lower-cost housing to be built means that families can stay in their communities even as demand for housing increases. It would allow more parents to have shorter commutes, freeing more time to spend with their kids. And more families would have the choice to live in neighborhoods where their kids can have the type of independence and mobility that urban living allows.