Obama Calls on Cities to Loosen Zoning Restrictions

by Nena Perry-Brown

Obama Calls on Cities to Loosen Zoning Restrictions: Figure 1

There has been a lot of talk lately about the effect of stringent zoning laws on housing development across the country, and now President Obama is making his voice heard on the issue.

As first reported by POLITICO, the Obama administration is publishing a “toolkit” paper on Monday that asserts that restrictive zoning laws in many cities and counties are driving up rent and income inequality while suppressing overall economic growth. The paper calls on local policy leaders to explore reforming the rules governing housing, land use and construction in order to make it easier to acquire permits and create or operate accessory dwelling units.

“In more and more regions across the country, local and neighborhood leaders have said yes in our backyard,” the paper states. “We need to break down the rules that stand in the way of building new housing.”

This ask goes hand-in-hand with a $300 million allotment request in the administration’s 2017 budget; that money would go toward grants for mayors to update their zoning laws. Additionally, the Department of Transportation is starting to consider area housing plans when approving funds for various transit projects.

DC may be slightly ahead of the curve with the zoning overhaul implemented earlier this month, which includes broader permissions for accessory apartments and alley dwellings. However, the city’s permitting process leaves much to be desired and the Height Act continues to govern critical aspects of development here.

This article originally published at https://dc.urbanturf.com/articles/blog/obama_calls_on_cities_to_loosen_zoning_restrictions/11720


  1. skidrowedc@gmail.com said at 9:19 pm on Monday September 26, 2016:
    Housing, of course, is a metropolitan-area issue, not just a D.C. issue -- and when it comes to zoning/entitlements, many of the suburbs are worse than D.C.! Arlington's process merits mention for being endlessly long and overtly political. "By right" essentially doesn't exist in Arlington for anything larger than a single-family house. (Their much-ballyhooed "Form-based zoning" along Columbia Pike resembles the zoning that ALL of D.C. has had for decades, except with fewer elements by-right.) But one can hardly single out Arlington. They may run their government-confiscation machine more smoothly, but all the suburban jurisdictions, for varying reasons, have slow and gimme-laden processes. Not sure if they're also worse than D.C. as regards permits and inspection, but I don't think there exists an area jurisdiction that doesn't have little Napoleons hard at work enforcing their "interpretations" of the building codes... Which is of course another part of the problem. Like almost all areas of regulatory law, building and zoning codes, plus related "guidelines" and standards (such as stormwater control, handicap accessibility, etc.) have mushroomed in complication over the past decade. For example the new DC Zoning runs over 1,000 pages! Much of this stems from a sincere attempt to Get It Right, provide reasonable balance, and so forth, but it's gotten to the point that the regulations are so complicated that they aren't really comprehensibly enforceable. You don't have to be a libertarian (I'm not) to feel that something is very, very wrong and in desperate need of reform.
  1. Rick Rybeck said at 8:50 am on Tuesday September 27, 2016:
    Many are correct to complain that zoning has needlessly restricted the supply of housing and created undue complexity regarding the development and redevelopment of property. But zoning is not the only culprit. The traditional property tax increases taxes on owners who construct, improve or maintain buildings while reducing taxes on owners who allow properties to deteriorate or who leave land vacant. Clearly, these economic incentives are upside down. Some communities rectify this problem by reducing the tax rate applied to privately-created building values while increasing the tax rate applied to publicly-created land values. The lower tax on buildings makes them cheaper to construct, improve and maintain. Surprisingly, the higher tax on land, by reducing the profits from land speculation, reduces the speculative demand for land and helps keep land prices more affordable as well. As an added bonus, shifting taxes off of privately-created building values and onto publicly-created land values encourages development of high-value sites -- which tend to be infill sites near urban infrastructure amenities like transit. This reduces sprawl and helps lower transportation costs as well as housing costs. So combining property tax reform with zoning reform can be a powerful tool for job growth, affordable housing and smart growth.

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