Is Upzoning the Solution?

Can zoning be the answer to solving housing shortages and increasing affordability?  Many city planners and politicians think so.  Although many localities are still considering upzoning ordinances, some have already implemented upzoning amendments that allow increased resident density.  The immediate effect is likely to be felt by the addition of housing.  However, it’s unclear how and if the additional units will relieve housing prices.  Opponents voice concern over potential long-term effects of upzoning in single-family neighborhoods. 

What is Upzoning?

Local Real Estate (infographic from

A brief description of zoning is given by the National Association of Realtors ( as “laws that affect land use, lot size, building heights, density, setbacks, and other aspects of property use.”  Zoning ordinances go back to the early twentieth century as a way to efficiently grow a city while protecting residential neighborhoods from industrial and commercial influences. 

Research conducted by G. Donald Jud in 1980 suggests that the absence of zoning (or loose zoning) decreases property value (The Effects of Zoning on Single-Family Residential Property Values: Charlotte, North Carolina; Land Economics; vol.56, no.2, p. 142-154).  His study concludes that residential property owners pay a premium for uniformly in land use.  Jud writes “One of the principal purposes of municipal zoning ordinances is to protect property owners from the deleterious external effects that may arise when incompatible land uses exist within the same neighborhood.”  However, he also states that in the absence of zoning protection, other mechanisms are created, such as neighborhood covenants (e.g. HOA, or civic association).

Herbert S. Swan wrote in 1949 (Economic and Social Aspects of Zoning and City Planning; The American Journal of Economics and Sociology; Vol.9, No.1, p.45-56) that efficient city planning and zoning ordinances can only be measured by their adaption to current conditions.  He stated, “Only as they meet basic requirements of present population, and the emerging needs of prospective population, can they be said to serve a community in full measure.” 

Swan’s words ring true today, as local governments look to zoning to address housing shortages and affordability.  “Upzoning” is the current trend to “meet the emerging needs of the population” to alleviate housing issues.  The city of Minneapolis and state of Oregon have already implemented new zoning that essentially eliminates single-family land use in turn for increased density.  And the trend is spreading throughout the country.  While some localities have gone to the extreme to essential ban single-family development, others are loosening zoning to allow auxiliary dwelling units (ADU).  The Virginia legislature is currently considering statewide upzoning legislation. 

Earlier this year, the Montgomery County Council loosened zoning requirements for ADUs.  Zoning Text Amendment 19-01 becomes effective December 31st 2019.  The passed amendment has additional background information, including a brief description of opposition views from residents.  Some of the concerns of increased density in single-family neighborhoods included overcrowding in schools and decreased availability of parking. Additionally, there is concern that car-choked streets could impede emergency vehicles.  Environmental concerns included uncontrolled water runoff from increased number and size of ADUs.  Opponents to the amendment also voiced concern with “the inability of the County to enforce any regulations.”

Montgomery County’s “loosened” zoning amendment is meant to increased density in single-family zoned neighborhoods.  In light of resident concerns, the Council allowed direct input from the Montgomery County Planning Board to increase the supply of accessory dwelling units in the county, “while also working to minimize any negative impacts on residential neighborhoods.” 

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By Dan Krell
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Disclaimer. This article is not intended to provide nor should it be relied upon for legal and financial advice. Readers should not rely solely on the information contained herein, as it does not purport to be comprehensive or render specific advice. Readers should consult with an attorney regarding local real estate laws and customs as they vary by state and jurisdiction. Using this article without permission is a violation of copyright laws.