Housing Density Matters for Affordability and the Climate

By Brianne K. NadeauIbraheem S. Samirah and Vaughn Stewart

Opinions & Editorials / January 31, 2020

Brianne K. Nadeau, a Democrat, represents Ward 1 on the D.C. Council. Ibraheem S. Samirah, a Democrat, represents Fairfax County in the Virginia House of Delegates. Vaughn Stewart, a Democrat, represents Montgomery County in the Maryland House of Delegates.

As elected officials from the District of Columbia, Virginia and Maryland, we are responsible for addressing the needs of our region in a coordinated way. A shortage of available, safe and affordable homes continues to be one of the most pressing needs of all our constituents. This housing shortage has contributed to a rise in rents, encouraged suburban sprawl and exacerbated traffic and transit issues.

A ban on apartments in significant sections of cities and towns plays a key role in our shortage of affordable, accessible places for people to live. Right now, for example, it’s illegal to build a three- or four-unit building on 75 percent of residential lots in the District. This dominance of single-family zoning at the local level has resulted in close to a century of housing development that favors either detached, single-family houses or large, mid-to-high-rise multifamily buildings. What’s left missing from the resulting housing market is what’s known as “middle housing” — duplexes, triplexes, townhouses and so-called accessory dwelling units. These middle housing types are, on average, more affordable than both single-family homes and high-rise multifamily buildings.AD

Exclusionary zoning’s negative impacts go beyond shortages of affordable housing. While there are reasonable arguments for regulating the form and use of cities and towns, the establishment of zoning codes throughout the United States in the early 20th century was driven by a desire to legally enshrine racial and economic segregation. There are clear examples of this dark history in all three of our jurisdictions.

In Maryland, Mayor Barry Mahool signed Baltimore’s racial zoning ordinance in 1910, proclaiming that “Blacks should be quarantined in isolated slums to reduce the incidents of civil disturbance, to prevent the spread of communicable disease into the nearby White neighborhoods, and to protect property values among the White majority.”

In Virginia, Richmond’s zoning ordinance passed in 1911 distinguished that “a block is White where a majority of the residents are White and colored where a majority . . . are colored.”AD

In the District, racially restrictive covenants on deeds banned purchase of homes in certain neighborhoods by African Americans, Jews and other racial and ethnic minorities, and the zoning code later enshrined this segregation, protecting certain neighborhoods with low-density detached housing, while designating many areas that were already lower-income for multifamily buildings.

While overt racial zoning codes were struck down by the Supreme Court in the 1917 Buchanan v. Warley decision, zoning codes thereafter were still able to strongly reinforce racial and economic segregation and were frequently passed with that intent. As Richard Rothstein notes in “The Color of Law,” zoning ordinances after 1917 did not include specifically racialized language, but “there was also enough open racial intent behind exclusionary zoning that it is integral to the story of de jure segregation.”

Single-family zoning is also the most counterproductive land-use designation for housing when it comes to climate change. Preventing infill development, such as duplexes, triplexes and fourplexes, in our jurisdictions means there’s a greater incentive for home builders to develop in rural areas. This is an ecological disaster and an economic drain: In 2015, the Victoria Transport Policy Institute estimated that sprawl, which can increase per capita land consumption by up to 80 percent and car use by up to 60 percent, costs Americans more than $1 trillion per year.AD

We have each proposed reforms to our jurisdictions’ existing land-use codes to legalize middle housing. Although our approaches vary, they all work from the same premise: ensuring we welcome more homes and more residents in the high-amenity or job-rich neighborhoods that our constituents deserve, regardless of race or class, while relieving the development pressures that have long been shouldered by residents of economically disadvantaged areas.

Of course, eliminating single-family zoning doesn’t mean you can’t build a single-family home or continue to live in one. It just means that the law doesn’t say you have to. Oregon has legalized fourplexes in cities and duplexes elsewhere. Minneapolis has legalized triplexes citywide. California is close to approving a bill that would allow for higher-density housing along transit and job corridors. The District, Maryland and Virginia should be counted among the places that have acknowledged the deleterious effects of single-family zoning on housing affordability, racial and economic equity and the climate. We are committed to redressing them through the clear, simple and honest reform of legalizing more housing where it has historically been barred.

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