Zoning Atlases Across the Map: Tennessee

The FWD #G26 • 1,123 Words

HousingForward Virginia isn’t the only one working on a zoning atlas. Organizations and institutions across the nation are diligently analyzing and mapping zoning ordinances to better visualize and understand how zoning is impacting housing development and affordability in their communities.

We want to highlight the diverse ways in which other state atlas teams are hoping to use their atlases and their motivations for taking on such a massive project. We hope that this inspires Virginians to think of the ways in which they can utilize the Virginia Zoning Atlas. We’re going to head southwest to the Volunteer State—Tennessee!

Ron Shultis, Tennessee Zoning Atlas

Tell us about yourself and the organization you work for.

My name is Ron Shultis and I’m the Director of Policy and Research at the Beacon Center of Tennessee, where I’ve been working for over six years now. Which makes me feel old. Beacon is a non-profit and non-partisan public policy think tank with a free market bent. Our mission is to empower Tennesseans to reclaim and protect their freedoms, so that they can freely pursue their vision of the American Dream.

So, what does that mean in practice? I like to say we do three things: we educate both the public and policy makers about policy issues, we advocate for the policies we develop, and we litigate to defend the constitutional rights of Tennesseans when the government infringes on them. In my role, I lead our research work producing reports around a variety of issues including housing, either conducting research myself or managing its publication. Before my time at Beacon, I worked as a legislative aide for the Georgia General Assembly.

Why are you taking on a zoning atlas project?

For years, Tennessee, and especially the Middle Tennessee/Nashville area has been growing as thousands of Americans have moved here. There’s an old well-known stat here that 100 people move to Nashville a day. That already existing trend took off like wildfire during the pandemic as Tennessee became the number one state for in-migration for the first time, according to U-Haul’s Growth Index. Ever since, Tennessee has remained in the top six, with homes selling in Nashville in an average of 10 days.

This massive growth has led to a massive shortage of homes. Nashville alone needs 54,000 new housing units by 2030 to keep up with the massive influx of people. But it’s not just would-be homeowners who are suffering; it’s also renters, as rates have risen more than 20 percent in only one year. This massive cost increase has forced many locals to leave their communities and move farther away to find affordable housing.

As a result, there has been a lot of attention on how to make housing more affordable in the Nashville area. As this broader conversation has been going on, we realized that no attention was being paid to zoning and its impact! If we’re going to talk about the reforms necessary to make housing more affordable, we knew it was important to educate the public on zoning and how it arbitrarily limits the supply of housing and increases prices.

How will you use the zoning atlas to support your work?

While there is understandably a concern over affordable housing in Middle Tennessee and the rest of the state, the cause of this affordable housing crisis we felt was often misplaced. From the beginning, our hope was to show and educate the public through the zoning atlas how local government zoning policies makes housing unaffordable and worsens Middle Tennessee’s housing shortage, often at the expense of low- and middle-income families.

We’ve already seen it have a huge impact as our zoning atlas was highlighted as part of the recent mayoral race here in Nashville. There was no cooler feeling than when members of our team got texts from friends and family when a local news station used our zoning atlas live on-air. Talk about your research having an impact!

What kind of partnerships do you have in the zoning atlas work?

What I love about the work of the zoning atlas is an increasingly divided world, it’s something that can cross ideological lines. The American Dream of home ownership is something that is inspirational to the center-left, center-right, and the non-aligned. Reforming zoning makes that more possible and something all can get behind. We have worked with all kinds of groups in coalitions in the past and hope to do something similar around zoning as we prepare to call and advocate for specific pro-housing reforms.

Why do you think it’s important for everyone to understand zoning?

I think zoning is so interesting because it’s a policy and issue that most have heard of before, but few understand how it works and its impact. I love how M. Nolan Gray, a former city planner in New York City and author of the book Arbitrary Lines describes zoning: “zoning is merely one tool city planners use to regulate density and uses on your own property; nothing more, nothing less.”

But the impact of that is so profound. Zoning has impacted so much of our lives from the costs of housing, the layout of our cities, incentivizing the urban sprawl and long commutes that define American cities (especially where I live in the South) and even reversing the century long trends of moving to our wealthiest cities for opportunity. For example, one study from economists at UC Berkeley found that after adjusting for inflation, downstream consequences of zoning have robbed Americans of about $1.6 trillion in estimated wages per year! I would argue that few issues impact our lives and livelihoods more but are understood less than zoning.

Any closing thoughts for Virginians pushing for zoning reform?

Be patient. True reform at any level often takes time. Time to educate the public and policymakers. Time to change hearts and minds. And time to build coalitions to work towards a common goal. Especially when we’re fighting to change something that many feel changes something as visceral to them as their home and neighborhood. But at the same time, recognize the moment we have where for the first time arguably ever, zoning reform is something that is sweeping the nation in both red and blue states. Work hard every day to take advantage of this opportunity because who knows when momentum will be on our side again.

Don’t miss an update on our work with the Virginia Zoning Atlas and other zoning initiatives. Come see us at the Virginia Governor’s Housing Conference next week!

Stay tuned for additional guest blogs from other state atlas teams!

If you would like to volunteer with the Virginia Zoning Atlas or help fund this innovative research project, please contact us.

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