The U.S. severely lacks affordable housing. According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, there are only 36 affordable rental homes available for every 100 extremely low-income renter households in the country. As the gap between supply of and demand for affordable housing grows, the problem becomes more difficult to solve. Countless government and non-profit sponsored programs aiming to increase the supply of affordable housing have been established around the country (mortgage assistance programs, community land trusts, etc.), but for them to operate effectively, zoning laws must first allow the development of affordable housing units.
Local zoning laws dictate which areas can be used for housing and what type of housing is allowed in those areas. They might establish minimum lot sizes, set-back requirements (how far a residence must be set back from the street or sidewalk), and parking requirements. Although some zoning regulations like these were initially designed to protect public health by preventing extremely high density and unsanitary living conditions, and have made great progress in that regard, some well-intentioned zoning regulations have created new public health problems and exacerbated housing and health inequities. Many cities’ zoning codes prohibit single-room apartments and rooming houses, and many suburban areas prohibit multifamily housing. Multifamily housing, small apartments, and shared housing models such as rooming houses tend to be more affordable than single-family housing because of their smaller size, higher density, and the resulting ability to safely house more people per square foot of land than single-family residences.
Additionally, zoning codes often lump affordable housing models together with unhealthy uses of land (i.e., industrial facilities and liquor and tobacco retail locations), and have been used as a tool for legal racial segregation. In 1968 when outright racial segregation in housing was outlawed by the Fair Housing Act, some policymakers eagerly adopted zoning regulations that would preserve their all-White neighborhoods by restricting housing to the more expensive single-family residences, while readily allowing cheaper high-density multifamily housing in majority Black neighborhoods. Today, families with lower incomes still tend to be priced out of the areas zoned primarily for single-family residences – areas that also tend to have higher-performing schools, closer proximity to medical services, more access to green space, and fewer environmental hazards, leading to better overall health and wellbeing of residents. The effect is a form of segregation that exacerbates race-based health disparities.
Because local zoning codes can have clear and pervasive impacts on public health, positive or negative, addressing zoning and other land-use issues has been identified as a “crucial element for achieving health equity in housing.