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Zoning controls, sprawl, and housing affordability

Maybe it’s confirmation bias, but I continue to feel like there is a groundswell of interest in trying to improve housing supply and overall affordability. The YIMBY movement continues to gain steam. Here are are few excerpts from a recent M. Nolan Gray article where he calls for an end to zoning as we know it today:

In nearly every major U.S. city, apartments are banned in at least 70 percent of residential areas. San Jose prohibits apartments in 94 percent of its residential areas. The most a developer can build in these zones is a detached single-family home.

The results speak for themselves. Houston builds housing at 14 times the rate of peers like San Jose. And it isn’t just sprawl: In 2019, Houston built roughly the same number of apartments as Los Angeles, despite being half its size. Since reforms to minimum-lot-size rules were put in place in 1998, more than 25,000 townhouses have been built, overwhelmingly in existing urban areas.

To be clear, Houston has made its share of planning mistakes. But, free of zoning, the city can constantly remake itself. That Houston is now one of the most affordable and diverse cities in the country is no accident.

The relationship between housing affordability and constraints on development is a well-documented one. If you want more affordable housing, you generally want fewer, rather than more, constraints on delivering new housing.

But as I was reading through the article, I couldn’t help but think more specifically about the relationship between sprawl and affordability. Because it is also true that, for a variety of reasons, the former has tended to help the latter (or at least coincide with it), which is why Gray felt it was important to say “and it isn’t just sprawl” when talking about Houston.

Part of this relationship has to do with the fact that expansionist development tends to be of the low-rise stick-built varietal, which is a relatively cost effective way to build. Whereas the higher density infill stuff tends to be built using more expensive materials like reinforced concrete. But of course there are many other factors at play, including lower land costs.

So I think one really interesting question is this one here: To what extent could we break this relationship between sprawl and affordability with what Gray is advocating for? In other words, how cheap could we make new infill housing in our older cities if we were to greatly loosen zoning controls or possibly even remove them all together?

I don’t know the exact answer, but I know that directionally it would be better.

1 Comment so far

  1. Tim Gray

    There is much room for infill and redevelopment in all cities in the GTHA. Hamilton is fully embracing this approach with their new OP that proposes to end boundary expansion and instead build inside the city. Hamilton, of course, has huge areas where this is possible. Let’s hope the Provincial government does not reject their plan in favour of business-as-usual expensive sprawl.


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