Cities Turn to Density to Tackle Housing Inequality

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Residential “upzoning” policies being adopted from Minneapolis to Seattle were once politically out of the question. Now they’re just politically fraught.

To understand local housing politics over the past several decades, consider a recent study out of Boston University. Political science professor Katherine Levine Einstein surveyed all of the minutes for zoning and planning meetings about housing across 97 cities and towns in Massachusetts. The study, which Einstein conducted with her colleagues Maxwell Palmer and David Glick, covers housing-cost-burdened cities like Boston but also older industrial cities such as Lawrence and Worcester.

“In every single city and county we studied, the advantaged dominated the proceedings,” Einstein said at a recent Brookings Institution panel on housing. Residents who are older, men, longtime residents, local voters, and homeowners are much more likely to participate in these meetings. And they are much more likely to oppose new construction than the general public.  

Residents who oppose new housing are also whiter. The population of Lawrence is 75 percent Latino or Latina, for example. But over three years of planning and zoning meetings, only one resident who spoke had an Hispanic surname, Einstein said.

This is the context in which we enter the current debate over housing inequality. Planning by bulldozer failed America. And in the wake of urban renewal, neighborhoods have much greater say in deciding their own destiny today. Yet the last 40 years have shown that local control enables people with greater social power to steer the process.
As housing affordability and inequality become national political issues, the people who have long dominated those meetings are starting to see their anti-development agenda upended. Cities are gaining political traction for policies that once seemed out of the question. The newest tool that cities are deploying in the ongoing fight against segregation and housing inequality is to let their streets get denser, in what is known as upzoning. Making zoning more progressive still faces awfully long odds, though, which makes this strategy a question of policy and politics.

Minneapolis led the charge last December by introducing a plan designed to explicitly address the legacies of segregation that continue to divide the city. Rewriting the script with Minneapolis 2040, said Mayor Jacob Frey, involved loosening up the restrictions that solidified some of those divisions: Zoning laws.

“We need to make sure that the precision of our solutions match the precision of the harm initially inflicted,” he told CityLab in March, when it passed. “And that harm was precise.”

Other upzoning plans are committed or on deck.
  • Seattle—home to Amazon, Microsoft, and the third-largest homeless population in the country—loosened the zoning code in 27 transit-oriented urban villages in March.
  • Austin’s city council just approved an ordinance that will allow more homes to be built on single-family zoned plots, but only if a certain percentage of development is affordable.
  • Oregon’s Speaker of the House proposed a bill to eliminate single-family zoning state-wide.
  • Charlotte leaders invited Minneapolis planners to come down to explain how they got it done.

Scott Wiener’s much-discussed state-wide residential rezoning measure, SB 50, passed the housing committee before it was stalled by the Senate Appropriations Committee. In a disappointment to its supporters, it won’t come up for a vote until 2020.

The idea driving all these projects is simple: When developers are legally allowed to build more kinds of housing, more of it will conceivably be built. Especially for cities strapped for affordable housing, this increase in housing stock is attractive as a path to lower costs. For the cities jumping on the densification train, however, no single one-size-fits-all solution has surfaced. Every specific fix chosen by cities is up for debate—and still subject to the anti-development preferences of vocal blocs of primarily wealthier, whiter, homeowner residents.

“There’s this belief that if you just get rid of single-family zoning, it’s the Mecca,” said Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan. “And I just I think you’ve got to do more to really make it work right.”

Seattle has tried a different tack than Minneapolis. Under new Mandatory Housing Affordability rules passed in Durkan’s city, zoning reform will be paired with developer incentives: They’ll be faced with the choice to build more affordable housing or pay into an affordable housing fund.

The plan took years to pass, and the final version is divisive. There are fears that Seattle’s MHA will fail to protect existing affordable housing stock, and critiques that it doesn’t go far enough to nudge development in the places that have long avoided it. Case in point: The couple dozen neighborhoods covered by the rezoning plan only make up 6 percent of the city’s single-family zoned land.

Still, Durkan is promising even more dramatic results than Minneapolis. “I’ll bet you coffee that five years from now, Seattle’s inclusionary zoning and MHA has made much more progress on adding density than Minneapolis,” she told CityLab. “Because Minneapolis didn’t include any incentives, and so you’re relying solely on normal market forces—which history has proven are not inclusionary.”

(The Minneapolis 2040 plan calls on the city to expand its inclusionary housing policies to apply to newly built housing developments, so incentives for developers could be on the horizon.)

Upzoning faces stiff resistance from the left, too. A frequent criticism from the socialist set holds that permitting more housing doesn’t necessarily mean more affordable housing, especially if developers are left to their own, market-influenced devices. In California in particular, tenants’ rights groups have expressed the fear that giving developers freer rein to build taller will result in more displacement, not more accessibility. Given the intense demand for housing, increasing density only a little—or upzoning just in neighborhoods where it’s cheaper to build—could make matters worse.

In the Golden State, groups that oppose SB 50 have assembled under the banner of Livable California. The bill “created a conjuring,” as Wiener put it during the Brookings event. “Every anti-growth coalition found each other.” A statewide upzoning effort has marshaled a statewide opposition movement, which Wiener refers to as “Livable-for-people-who-have-housing California.”

In high-income neighborhoods that have long enjoyed stagnant supplies of single-family homes, proponents argue that any push to densify will be transformative. In California, it’s currently illegal to build anything but single dwellings designed for single families, sometimes with an in-law unit, in roughly 80 percent of the state’s residential neighborhoods.

“Pure unadulterated local control, not just at a city level, but at a neighborhood level, has not worked for housing,” Wiener says.

Still, as Alex Baca and Hannah Lebovits wrote in CityLab, advocates also “recognize that reforming zoning on its own is not, has never been, and never will be a silver bullet.” Indeed, in several cities where upzoning has been proposed or employed, loosening building restrictions has been inextricably linked to other policy pushes. SB 50, for example, would enhance tenant protections and introduce stricter affordability requirements. For communities deemed sensitive to the risk of displacement, the bill will delay implementation by five years. Austin’s Affordability Unlocked bonus program, which amends city code to promote more density, is strict about which developers will be nudged to build, and where. For a developer to gain relaxed site restrictions, for example, at least 50 percent of all units must be made affordable for income-restricted residents—the more affordable housing units built, the higher developers will be allowed to build.

Proposals for upzoning are also evolving in response to criticism. After SB 827, a predecessor to SB 50, died in committee in 2018, Wiener retooled the bill to expand the affected area beyond places adjacent to transit, since these tend to be lower-income areas. (Wealthier communities have a history of blocking transit access.) SB 50 is a more robust upzoning bill, Wiener says, that covers jobs-rich areas, not just transit-adjacent places. It applies a lighter touch to communities that don’t have access to jobs or transit.

“The mayor of Beverly Hills has been one of the foremost critics of the bill, so 90210 is covered,” Wiener says, noting that Beverly Hills is rich in both jobs and transit.

In Seattle, Durkan says that building more housing in Seattle’s high-opportunity neighborhoods will continue to be a challenge. Where the exit-ramp to pay into a fund rather than build affordable housing exists, the majority of developers choose to take it, she says. This trend contributes to wealth and racial segregation, which she says could be avoided with on-site development.

“It’s got benefits, because you can aggregate that money and then use that money to leverage it with the federal benefits to build more housing,” Durkan says. “But it has, I think, a real downside, which is that you then create affordable housing that is separate and apart from all the other housing where people live.”

Skeptics of density still retain power, despite the upswell in interest in upzoning. In Philadelphia, officials are pushing back against land-use reforms passed in 2011. City Council President Darrell Clarke just introduced two bills that would lower density and increase parking. He aims to create a commission under the council comprising residents, developers, and other professionals, which does not give much voice to future residents who have yet to move to this growing city. “Growing” is a relative term for what’s happening in Philadelphia today, which (like many American cities) is only now rebounding from a massive population fall-off.

The dynamic in Philadelphia is tied to the broader shape of urban growth in America. For decades now, wealthier residents in districts zoned exclusively for single-family homes have consolidated their political power. They have held tight to these zoning restrictions and developed a sophisticated vocabulary for defending them, arguing that change will usher in traffic congestion, crime, over-crowded public schools, a “change in neighborhood character,” or even too much shade. With this input, cities have historically balked at passing ambitious measures like that of Minneapolis.

But as Benjamin Schneider, a CityLab alum, writes in The Nation, cities once allowed for far greater density. And with enough pressure, they could return to those roots. Between 1960 and 2010, zoning laws in Los Angeles changed from accommodating 10 million people to 4.3 million people. As Schneider writes, “San Francisco’s 1978 citywide downzoning decreased the number of housing units that could be built in the city by 180,000, equivalent to more than 50 percent of the city’s housing stock at that time.”

Seattle neighborhoods zoned exclusively for single-family homes feature thousands of older multi-family units. (Sightline Institute)

Seattle, too, used to allow for denser development. Part of advocates’ campaign is to communicate to residents just how common older multifamily housing is across the city, in neighborhoods that are now zoned strictly for single-family homes, and would not allow similar construction to happen today. The Sightline Institute, a think tank, published a map that reveals the city’s historic multifamily housing, home to some 12,000 Seattle residents across the city’s more exclusive neighborhoods.

Downzoning efforts changed the fabric of cities. Upzoning policies could change them again. “We missed a lot of the uptick in Seattle,” Durkan says, referring to a population spike that has outpaced new housing construction in her city. “But hopefully we’ve got uptick remaining.”