Talk to new home builders in Salt Lake City, Utah and you will discover that they have their hands full trying to build affordable housing and still work within the city’s strict zoning laws. On the other side of the country, leaders in Ithaca, New York just finished a years-long process of totally rewriting that city’s zoning laws. What do both municipalities have in common? They need more housing.
Salt Lake City is one of the most active economic regions in the country right now. Ithaca can easily be classified as small town America, but its population is steadily growing. Both cities find themselves trying to manage growing housing needs within the scope of existing zoning laws.
To builders and buyers alike, zoning laws are both good and bad. Indeed, there is a love-hate relationship between those who write zoning laws and those who have to live with them. The relationship between land use and land users is a tenuous one at best.
From the perspective of lawmakers, there are reasons to both love and hate zoning laws. Here are just five of them:
1. They Control Land Use
The primary purpose for zoning laws is to control how land is used. City leaders tend to love zoning laws for this very reason. Said laws give them the authority to control how land is developed in both the short and long terms. It allows city leaders to encourage planned development of residential neighborhoods that are kept separate from industrial and commercial districts.
2. They Limit Land Use
Hand-in-hand with controlling land use is limiting it – and not in a good way. Restrictive zoning laws in the city have led to an untenable situation in which roughly 80% of the available land cannot be used for housing. According to local real estate agency cityhomeCOLLECTIVE, where housing is permitted, it is restricted primarily to single-family homes. Ithaca was facing a very similar problem before overhauling its zoning laws.
3. They Artificially Affect Home Prices
Another reason to hate zoning laws is that they artificially affect home prices. Both Ithaca and Salt Lake City are facing very serious problems with affordable housing. That is partially due to their restrictive zoning laws. When zoning laws limit where and what builders can build, housing prices tend to go up. If city leaders want to bring housing prices down, they have to loosen up the restrictions. They have to allow builders to develop new areas and put up the types of housing that cost less.
4. They Preserve Neighborhood Integrity
Despite the affordability problems that zoning laws create, they do help to preserve neighborhood integrity. Zoning laws in both Ithaca and Salt Lake City would prevent a builder from developing a high-rise apartment building in the middle of a residential neighborhood, for example. And of course, preserving neighborhood integrity extends to historical preservation as well.
5. They Maintain Order Amid Growth
Last but not least, zoning laws are good in the sense that they help maintain order amid growth. If you do not understand why this is important, you probably haven’t spent much time in medieval European cities that grew over hundreds of years without any thought toward planning. They ended up with narrow streets, chaotic land use, and infrastructure incapable of supporting modern life.
Zoning laws serve very specific purposes. They can be both good and bad, depending on how they are structured and enforced. And as Salt Lake City and Ithaca can both testify to, sometimes zoning laws need to be changed in order to accommodate a greater good.