Our Region Needs More Housing: End Single Family Zoning


The prevalence of single-family homes in growing cities in the United States has become a hot topic. A recent article in the New York Times, “Cities Start to Question an American Ideal: A House With a Yard on Every Lot” gave a spatial dimension to this – showing maps of the single-family zoning in various cities.

Cities – especially New York City – have limited amounts of land. Building single family detached homes means creating a few large, expensive houses instead of many smaller, less expensive houses, even if these are what is in demand. This adds to our housing shortage and ends up reflected in increasing homelessness, overcrowding and rent burdening. And the problem continues to get worse. The percentage of households spending more than 30% of their income on housing has increased from 30% in 2000 to 46% in 2015 in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut.

Looking at the New York Times maps, it could be worse – New York has just 15% of residential land zoned single family detached housing, compared to 36% in Washington, DC, 75% in Los Angeles and 81% in Seattle – all cities with their own housing crunches. But there’s no reason the pockets of the five boroughs that are still zoned for detached single family use – which includes many neighborhoods like Midwood and Forest Hills with good public transit access – shouldn’t be allowed to develop multifamily housing like surrounding areas.

And we also need to take a hard look at nearby suburban counties – places with quick rail commutes to midtown, as well as significant jobs centers of their own.

Zooming in on four close-by counties – Bergen, Fairfield, Nassau, and Westchester – 56% of all housing near rail stations in these counties is classified as detached single-family houses. In Nassau County, nearly three-quarters of its housing within walkable distance to a train station is detached single-family. And throughout the 31-county region, there are 1.2 million single-family detached homes that are well served by public transit.

One of the most efficient methods of providing more homes would be to simply allow two smaller homes where zoning requires one large one. Changing zoning in these areas to allow as-of-right Accessory Dwelling Unit (ADUs) or two-family conversions would help accomplish this. This is also a way of making sure new housing is more affordable, lessen the burden of housing costs on low- and moderate-income homeowners, and also allow seniors an easier way to have live-in caregivers.

New York is quickly falling behind, with Minneapolis recently voting to end single-family zoning, statewide legislation under serious consideration in Oregon and California, and cities like Fayetteville, Arkansas and Boise, Idaho, now allowing as-of-right Accessory Dwelling Units. New York City and our entire region is long overdue to follow suit.

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5 Comments

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  1. 1
    M London

    While i don’t disagree, i think that an outright ban is a non starter Politically for NY state or even Nassau county. The Minneapolis law you mention may work well for that city if/when all the lawsuits are worked out, and similar legislation MIGHT make it through NYC council and be beneficial if combined with transit upgrades. However outside the Five Boroughs many small suburban communities will fight tooth and nail to keep single family zoning in their small towns and villages and no local politician who wants to be re-elected will back the plan. I would recommend a more targeted approach to updating zoning along major transit corridors and villages within walking distance of train stations. This has already been happening in Suffolk and Nassau Counties with success and should be encouraged and assisted by legislation wherever possible. I personally think you’d have as much chance to pass a statewide ban on single family zoning in NY State as you would banning firearms in Tennessee. Just sayin’.

  2. 2
    MARK D LONDON

    While i don’t disagree, i think that an outright ban is a non starter Politically for NY state or even Nassau county. The Minneapolis law you mention may work well for that city if/when all the lawsuits are worked out, and similar legislation MIGHT make it through NYC council and be beneficial if combined with transit upgrades. However outside the Five Boroughs many small suburban communities will fight tooth and nail to keep single family zoning in their small towns and villages and no local politician who wants to be re-elected will back the plan. I would recommend a more targeted approach to updating zoning along major transit corridors and villages within walking distance of train stations. This has already been happening in Suffolk and Nassau Counties with success and should be encouraged and assisted by legislation wherever possible. I personally think you’d have as much chance to pass a statewide ban on single family

  3. 3
    M Issles

    I hope for the best given that multifamily housing is finally being built in Nassau county at a rate density and size that is more proportional give the population but most is luxury or senior only housing due to nimby and the usual complaint of property values.
    Complaints have been raised for every objection possible against density or even a variance. I don’t have any hope for any legalized two family homes let alone a ban on single family home zoning.

  4. 4
    A.Ward

    My thoughts are this article is it is fine to push an addenda to ban single family homes in areas which historically where built as single family tracts.
    What I don’t hear first is the fact that you need to build out the entire infrastructure, not just rails. This would include, improved roads, sewer and water, electrical and all other utilities.
    To recommend a ban on single family homes only goes to help the lawyers, developers and government IDA agencies.

  5. 5
    Andrew McGovern

    The change from single family to multiple dwellings per lot is not as easy as it sounds. On Staten Island, for instance, many older single family homes have been replaced by multiple units without much thought to the impact on the infrastructure and the community. There are now moves to go back the other way due to the problems that have arisen. Streets that were not designed to handle the traffic and the lack of required off street parking have created a nightmare in many neighborhoods. Sewers, electric service, water, garbage and schools can’t always handle the influx of the extra people.
    So, when planning to increase density in areas that logically should be increased .Do so after appropriate investigation, planning and upgrades to the local infrastructure not just a quick change to the zoning law.
    Thanks

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