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Is Single-Family Zoning Here to Stay?

Housing affordability has become a central topic of conversation at every level of government in the United States. It's not just that rising rents and mortgages are creating higher financial burdens for residents: there simply aren’t enough homes. In fact, housing experts estimate there is a shortage of over four million homes nationwide. 

Myriad solutions addressing America’s ongoing housing crisis have been proposed. Options frequently cited include reducing parking requirements, improving housing voucher programs, and rezoning single-family home areas.  

About 75% of residential land in American cities is zoned solely for single-family detached homes. In large cities, that percentage ranges from about 15% in New York City to 94% in San Jose, while many suburbs and newer sunbelt cities are even higher than the national average. 

Zoning for multifamily homes can (but does not always) require willingness to switch zoning from residential to commercial. Factors such as whether a property has five or more units, local zoning laws, intended use, and property characteristics often combine to determine whether a multifamily building will be zoned as residential or commercial property

In light of this, it is eye-opening to realize how little support there is among local elected officials for rezoning for commercial use. In partnership with Sam Frederick at Columbia University, we found that only 31% of local officials would support rezoning residential areas to allow for more commercial use. By comparison, this is the lowest level of support for any of the five policy proposals asked about in our survey. 

Chart showing that 31% of local officials support rezoning residential areas to allow for commercial use

While officials representing populations that are more populous, lower-income, or with a greater minority percentage showed slightly more support for such a policy, they were still overwhelmingly opposed to such a proposal. Even Democratic local officials – who were the most likely population segment to support rezoning – only reached 42% approval.  

Chart showing percent of local officials who support rezoning segmented by population, income, minority, and Democratic vote share

So, what could be causing this? It’s possible that some policymakers aren’t aware that rezoning may be necessary for more multifamily units. On the other hand, it’s also possible their opposition is precisely because they understand the linkage: they may be representing the longstanding perspective of many single-family homeowners who believe the introduction of multi-family units would lower the value of their properties, reduce school quality, and increase traffic. As one local official in North Carolina remarked, it would “be a disaster for single family home areas.”  

Attempts to address this at the state level have also faced backlash. In April, a Los Angeles County Superior Court struck down a 2019 statewide elimination of single-family-only zoning for five Southern California cities. This ruling could affect 121 communities if upheld.  

In sum, if rezoning at scale becomes the preferred avenue for addressing the nation’s housing affordability challenges, advocates for this approach will have to find a way to persuade many local officials to reconsider their existing stances. 

Survey Background 

While we recognize that the details of any policy are important, generally speaking, to what extent would you support or oppose each of the following proposals? 


  • Expanding voucher options for students to attend private or religious schools.   

  • Expanding collective bargaining rights for public sector employees.  

  • Increasing the use of cameras, speedbumps, or other traffic tools in residential areas.  

  • Increasing government spending on park maintenance.  

  • Rezoning residential areas to allow for more commercial use.  


Response Columns: 

  • Strongly support 

  • Support 

  • Somewhat support 

  • Neither support nor oppose 

  • Somewhat oppose 

  • Oppose 

  • Strongly oppose 


Press Contact:   

Nathan Lee, PhD   

Managing Director   


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