The Possibilities of Zoning

Timothy L. Coyle
Consultant specializing in housing issues

Webster defines zoning as “dividing into zones, tracts or areas according to existing characteristics or as distinguished for some purpose.”  

In today’s urban environments, it’s the last five words in the definition of zoning that really matter – for housing, at least.  Indeed, it’s those five words – as distinguished for some purpose – that give local governments the power to set aside the benefits of property rights for the many in deference for the few; to approve the construction of new housing in a neighborhood where residents of existing housing already live.

In that regard, zoning is a form of dispute resolution.  It pits the property rights of existing residents, determined not to have the character of their neighborhood changed by new development – especially high-density rental housing – against those who are backing the new construction.  Here in this state, residents typically sue, using the handy California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).

The dispute can go on for years with developers, asserting their property rights, fighting back.  Eventually – with litigation costs forever rising – proponents of the new housing relent, yielding to opponents and settling for a smaller project to build.  Yet, with an, albeit downsized, development a (zoning) dispute is resolved by the action. Meanwhile, California falls further behind in housing production.

That’s the way it works here throughout the state, but the symptoms are spreading.  Just ask housing proponents in Boston like the Massachusetts Smart Growth Alliance (the Alliance), who’s recent study on multi-family housing revealed how the local zoning approval processes for multi-family housing have grown more discretionary, ad hoc, political, unpredictable and time consuming in the greater Boston area in recent times.  Things there have gotten so bad that, according to the Alliance, an increasing population is bidding up prices on a limited supply of multi-family housing well beyond affordability. Nearly half of the city’s residents are rent burdened because a dearth of multi-family housing.

Indeed, the study found that zoning – and the approval process, generally – have become a primary obstacle challenging housing affordability, often favoring single family homes over higher-density multi-family buildings.

But, an innovative project due west of Boston – in Brooktondale, New York – highlights how reduced zoning restrictions can promote development of creative and land-efficient, affordable housing.

Desperate for rental housing in upstate New York, an area builder produced a 140-unit pocket neighborhood complete with brightly painted exteriors and whimsical architectural details.  Called Boiceville Cottages, the development was built on a mere 40 acres, thanks to consideration by local planners and zoners – and approval of the town council.

The project – complete with extensive green space, including nature paths and personal garden beds for each resident – was approved without any regulatory review.  Moreover, the development does not include any public roads or driveways, so nothing was required of the municipality in terms of construction and maintenance.

“Lack of zoning (and accordant reviews) really allowed enormous creativity and flexibility to modify, change and improve the development over time,” said the developer, noting a corresponding limited and expeditious approval process.  And, the cooperative attitude shown by the locals “allowed me to create a new model of how to do rental housing.”

California can learn a lot of lessons from the Boiceville Cottages development.  First, the density. Boiceville Cottages was 140 units of housing built on just 40 acres of land.  Higher densities in California is less expensive, will save land and brings more lots into residential use – especially in urban areas.

Second, the unique design and Spartan accommodations of Boiceville Cottages is all that’s needed for most developments in this state.  Too much housing in California today is overdesigned, involving a bevy of specialists and far too many local engineers and planners.

Thirdly, permitting private development of infrastructure – and avoiding payment of union-scale, prevailing wages – saves money.  It also allows for greater ease in phasing projects.

Lastly, imagine housing in California being approved with only a cursory regulatory review.  Or, after just half of what is done now. Boiceville Cottages was okayed without any such review.  The absence of regulatory review of Boiceville Cottages prompted the developer to explore a different way to finance and build more housing.

So, California homebuiders are ready for a Boiceville Cottages.  California housing sponsors are ready, as well. And, California renters and homebuyers are surely ready.  Is California?

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