The Single-Family Zoning Conundrum

By Don Elliott, FAICP

Last September I moderated a panel on “The End of Single-Family Zoning” at the APA’s Colorado Planning Conference.  In addition to reviewing widespread city and county discussions about whether and where and how to allow Accessory Dwelling Units in single-family zone districts, we discussed several state and municipal initiatives across the U.S.  While legislation in Oregon, California, and Minneapolis has gotten much attention, few planners are aware of how many other U.S. cities are having parallel discussions about allowing “missing middle” housing in formerly single-family only zone districts. Within our own practice, Clarion has recently had these discussions in communities as diverse as Bloomington, Indiana; Ridgway, Colorado; Rochester, Minnesota; Colorado Springs, Colorado; and Boise, Idaho.  The motivations for these discussions are both equitable and practical. As a practical matter, the fact that 50 percent or more of the land in many communities is zoned single-family-only means that affordable housing solutions that do not address single-family-only zones are trying to solve a very difficult problem using only the remaining 50% of land.  As a matter of equity, many think it is unfair to allow the occupants of 50 percent of the land to somehow be protected from the changes needed to create more affordable housing.

These conversations will continue to unfold and are likely to have many different outcomes.  While some communities will probably decide to eliminate all single-family zoning, others will more likely allow wider varieties of housing into some – but not all – of their current single-family districts.  As these discussions unfold, it is important to keep in mind three facts that often seem to get ignored.

  1. The Desire is Global. The desire to live in a single-family home on a separate parcel of land is not a U.S. phenomenon.  Having worked in several different countries, I have found that the desire to live in a private freestanding dwelling with your own household is very common. Even in the U.S., that desire is not limited to privileged families; many households in lower-income neighborhoods and households of color want to live in single-family homes on their own lots.  Not everyone wants to live in a single-family home, of course, but many do yearn for the day when they can afford it.  Those with deeply held desires to live in a certain way that is not inherently dangerous or unhealthy usually find a place where they are allowed to live that way, and a community willing to let them do it.
  2. Single-Family homes Do Not Require Exclusive Zoning. America is full of highly desirable neighborhoods with a mix of single-family homes, duplexes, “missing middle” housing, and larger apartments. Meeting the desire to live in a single-family home does not mean that zoning needs to prohibit all other forms of housing.  Logically, it also does not mean that every current single-family zone needs to be revised to accommodate other forms of housing, but the need for more equitable housing regulations may bring us to that conclusion.
  3. Zoning Reform does Not Eliminate Covenants. Even if zoning rules are changed to allow ADUs, duplexes, triplexes, or fourplexes in single-family zones, many newer neighborhoods have restrictive covenants that limit construction and occupancy to single-family homes.  Congress or state legislatures could declare that such covenants are unenforceable as against the public interest, but until they do, the widespread existence of single-family-only covenants has equity implications. It means that if zoning rules are changed to allow “missing middle” housing in single-family zones, those neighborhoods with covenants may continue to enforce them, and much of the housing changes will probably occur in neighborhoods without covenants.  Those may well be older neighborhoods whose occupants have lower incomes and are more likely to be persons of color, persons with disabilities, or women-headed households.  Ignoring this issue may just exchange public control for private control of housing exclusions.

All of these factors should inform future community discussions of changes to single-family zones to ensure that solutions designed to promote housing affordability do not in fact exacerbate the inequities already embedded in many zoning ordinances.


Photo by Michael Tuszynski on Unsplash