Let’s Talk About Zoning
Zoning reform is generating a lot of interest around the nation. I think that is great. The debate is primarily being driven by those concerned about housing prices, particularly along our coasts. Not surprisingly, since Missouri has some of America’s most affordable housing, there is less demand for change in Missouri than elsewhere, but that doesn’t mean our state and cities wouldn’t benefit from zoning reforms.
We have seen efforts to amend zoning recently in Missouri, though in different ways. State government actually took away the authority of local governments to address concentrated animal feeding operations through zoning. In Webster Groves, the city passed an ordinance allowing duplexes in most single-family zoning areas, but residents put that law up for a referendum and it was voted down. As I wrote at the time about the issue of zoning reform in Webster Groves (and elsewhere):
The rubber will meet the road in debates about equality in housing policy when people — including suburban liberals who claim to passionately support more diversity and inclusion — are forced to consider changes that could affect their own home values and community makeup.
I think the larger questions of zoning reform will eventually come to St. Louis and Kansas City. Right now, our cities and suburbs aggressively mandate lot sizes, setbacks, parking requirements, family limits (homes versus duplexes versus apartments or condos), and much more. The revealed preference of suburban growth is that many people like those policies. I happen to think we should make some adjustments to them.
I understand homeowners’ objections to zoning changes. You make likely the largest investment of your life (your house) under a certain set of rules, and now people want to change the rules on you. I understand the frustration. But strict zoning rules limit people’s ability to use their own property as they see fit, and perhaps more importantly, may create housing shortages that squeeze lower-income residents out of certain markets and raise costs for everyone. That’s a serious tradeoff that homeowners ought to consider.
Until those larger debates happen, what are some zoning reforms Missouri cities and counties could benefit from now?
- We can remove building height restrictions in our urban areas.
- We can reduce or eliminate parking requirements, particularly near transit facilities.
- We can limit or end the authority of advisory boards, such as historic preservation commissions, to reject development proposals themselves.
Those are three ideas worth acting on in St. Louis and Kansas City, and probably other parts of the state.