What’s the “Sweet Zone” for Land Use?

The FWD #168 • 448 Words

Changes to land use rules could lead to more affordable housing in Virginia.

Zoning regulations not only determine how we can use and develop land, but also influence the way our lives and communities are shaped. Land use laws determine, for example, where we can build housing, schools, or grocery stores and how connected they are to one another. Exclusionary land use and zoning policies can also constrain land use (and therefore housing supply), artificially inflate prices, and perpetuate historical patterns of racial and economic segregation.

Due to these far-reaching impacts, discussions around zoning have become more prevalent throughout the country and within the Capitol. The Biden-Harris Administration recently announced their Housing Action Supply Plan (May 16, 2022), which would address zoning on the national level by rewarding jurisdictions that adopt reformed land-use policies with higher scores in federal grant processes. This effort, along with other legislative and administrative actions in the plan, incentivizes cities to boost their supply of quality housing by removing height restrictions, encouraging denser development, and expanding existing forms of federal financing for affordable development.

Within Virginia, McGuireWoods LLP recently released a two-part study on existing zoning laws and how they continue segregation patterns rooted in historic redlining decisions throughout the state. This study, along with the JLARC housing study released last December, importantly brings attention to the impact of zoning on affordable housing, and both studies offer recommendations for how to better facilitate affordable development.

For example, rezoning areas of existing commercial, industrial or institutional uses could increase housing supply and housing choices faster and with less disruption than rezoning existing residential areas. In addition, density bonus incentives could be offered to reduce the build cost and negotiate restrictions on the rent or sales price of new homes. In Alexandria, the latter idea will increase residential density up to 30 percent in exchange for rent or sales price restrictions on one-third of the bonus units. 

While re-zoning may be a hot topic amongst housing professionals, public engagement and education about land-use decisions remains a crucial first step. Later this month, The League of Women Voters of the Richmond Metro Area is hosting a public forum, “Demystifying Zoning: Why It Matters.” The event (available both in-person and streamed online) will be on Tuesday, June 28th from 5:30 to 7:00 and is designed for citizens and policymakers who want to know more about the history of zoning, current zoning and its implications, and new approaches to zoning being used in Virginia and elsewhere. The event is free, and all are encouraged to register and get involved in the discussion of how to best re-shape our cities for a more affordable and connected future.

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