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Aug 5, 2023 – CNN

In the 1910s, US cities began enacting policies that would shape neighborhoods and, unintentionally, lay the roots for the severe housing shortage today: single-family zoning laws.

Zoning laws, at their most basic, follow a simple concept. In one part of town, only factories can be built. In another section of town, only apartment buildings can be built. And in a different part of town, only single-family houses can be built.

Single-family zoning laws are unknown to most Americans, but they were instrumental to the expansion of urban areas and the suburban ideal of owning a home with a front porch and backyard on a half-acre plot of land post-World War II.

But that dream always had a threat implicit, for those who viewed it that way. Your house could be your dream home, but could that dream come to an end if someone built a factory right next door? And if you tried to sell your house, who would buy it? Any pollution or noise could easily drift over to your house, and selling and moving someplace new could seem nearly impossible.

And thus, zoning laws protected millions of Americans’ home values, stopped development of projects that could turn small villages into larger towns and larger towns into cities, and delegated control to local homeowners and government over how land in their neighborhoods was used.

Yet critics say zoning laws ended up being exclusionary, reinforced racial and class segregation and shut the door to many Americans on home ownership.

Strict single-family zoning regulations limited housing supply, artificially raised prices, squandered the dream of homeownership for future generations, and blocked families from moving into neighborhoods with better schools and job opportunities, researchers and advocates say.

More than a century after the first single-family zoning laws were passed, roughly 75% of land that is zoned for housing in American cities is for private, single-family homes, only. In some suburbs, zoning laws make it illegal to build apartments in nearly all residential areas. Municipalities have also made minimum lot sizes bigger and added height requirements. This has had the effect of encouraging ever-larger single-family homes and limiting housing options, like smaller houses.

“Zoning has gotten more complicated and more restrictive,” said Jenny Schuetz, a senior fellow at Brookings Metro who studies urban economics and housing policy. “It’s getting harder to build stuff, particularly in high-income areas that want to have a lot of control over development.”

“Zoning is key to understanding why housing is so expensive and why we’re not providing housing to folks who need it,” …Yonah Freemark, the research director of the Urban Institute’s Land Use Lab said.

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