There is an effort gaining momentum in state legislatures to create zoning laws that allow for creative solutions to the nation’s affordable housing crisis. Lawmakers in several states have approved legislation that allows for the “missing middle,” a term used to denote housing options missing from today’s marketplace, so that duplexes, triplexes, fourplexes, town homes, and Accessory Dwelling Units (ADU’s) can be constructed in single-family zoning districts. Supporters of these laws tout that an increase in housing units at lower price points will help alleviate supply and demand issues, while detractors are concerned about lower property values and increased congestion.
Below is a state-by-state overview of zoning reforms enacted to-date, as well as several measures that have stalled in a handful of states:
California has recently enacted a large volume of pro-housing laws. With the retail industry in transition from brick-and-mortar sales to online sales, vacant retail is increasingly common. California is being bullish on passing zoning laws that allow for conversion of these vacant spaces to residential use. In an effort to streamline the entitlement and permitting process, California passed legislation that requires governing jurisdictions to adhere to time-limited entitlement periods, and time-limited permitting periods. This is designed to prevent costly and risky delays for developers trying to time seasonal weather and market changes.
In 2019, Oregon passed a sweeping reform bill to allow duplexes in single-family zoning districts within the Portland metro area and in cities with a population of 10,000 residents or more. In addition, cities with a population of 25,000 or more residents are required to allow triplexes and fourplexes on any lot approved for a single-family house. The bill, lauded as a step to promote “missing middle” housing, aims to allow people with various incomes at different stages of their lives to live in the same neighborhood. Seen as a long-term solution, the law should provide more affordable housing supply to the state within the decade.
The HOME Act, recently passed by the Vermont legislature, focuses growth in urban areas where development already exists. It requires five or more units per acre in areas served by water and sewer, while reducing parking minimums to no more than one space per dwelling unit. The law allows duplexes everywhere single-family homes are allowed, and fourplexes are allowed in areas served by sewer and water. For developments that meet municipal standards, the bill stipulates development by right provisions to speed up permitting and review time for qualified projects.
During the 2023 legislative session, Washington state lawmakers passed a zoning reform bill that overrides a city’s attempt to restrict land use in single-family zoning districts. Under the new bill, Seattle’s suburbs must allow at least duplexes on single family zoned property. The same goes for cities statewide with populations of 25,000 or more. Cities with more than 75,000 residents must allow at least fourplexes in single-family zoned districts. Properties that fall under homeowner associations and other “common interest communities” are exempt from the new regulations.
In Montana, the state legislature recently passed several zoning reform bills that are widely viewed as pro-development. The first bill allows multi-family housing and mixed-use development in urban commercial zones that previously only allowed office and retail space. A second bill allows for duplexes and ADU’s to be built on single-family zoned properties. The legislature also passed a third bill that prevents local municipalities from enacting stricter zoning laws than those adopted by the state and requires future land use plans to allocate space for more housing.
Florida’s “Live Local Act,” set to take effect on July 1, 2023, requires that local governments authorize multifamily and mixed-use residential developments in areas zoned for commercial or mixed-use if at least 40% of the units are deemed affordable, subject to certain criteria. Furthermore, local governments are prohibited from restricting the density of affordable housing developments below the highest allowed density, per the local zoning ordinance, where residential development is allowed. The law requires expedited processing of affordable housing building permits, and it requires that local governments make available an inventory list of land owned or controlled by counties and municipalities that are appropriate for affordable housing development.
Other U.S. states
Despite notable successes, a handful of states have seen bills stall in their legislative chambers this year. In Texas, a bill to allow ADU’s in single-family zoning districts failed to advance to the House floor after passing the Senate. In New York, ambitious zoning reforms that would have removed density caps in certain urban areas met with stiff resistance from constituents in upstate New York and Long Island. Earlier this year, Arizona’s Senate chamber voted down legislation that would have required municipalities with more than 30,000 people to allow minimum lot sizes smaller than 4,000 square feet for new home construction on vacant lots. It also would have barred zoning that imposes minimum lot widths greater than 40 feet, established statewide minimum setbacks, and mandated that local governments allow ADU’s.
Zoning, and subsequent reforms are inherently state and local issues. While the White House contends that housing affordability is a top priority, it’s leaning on state and local governments to spearhead zoning reform efforts as one solution to combat the affordability crisis that has pervaded the US housing industry since 2020.