Planning and Zoning— Problem or Solution?

By Chuck Kasky
CEO of Maryland REALTORS® and host of the Association’s podcast, “Get Real Estate,” which is available through any podcast app.

Throughout history, it has been common knowledge that careful land use planning benefits local communities. Residents support these policies to preserve home values, reduce congestion, and maintain high-quality public services. More recently, housing policy experts have brought forward a far less rosy picture on zoning ordinances and their applications. They have found that these powerful tools can also be used to create and maintain segregated neighborhoods and contribute to the housing inequalities we see today.  

Zoning ordinances date back to early 20th century New York. Business owners were displacing existing residential mansions in favor of their high fashion shops along the middle section of Fifth Avenue. It was progress, but it was not long before those business owners feared that they, too, would be replaced, this time by their own suppliers and manufacturers. Wanting to protect their streets and ‘exclusive’ Fifth Avenue image from an invasion of low-level employees, the owners developed a set of regulations that would become the county’s first comprehensive zoning ordinance.  

When that 1916 zoning code proved effective in slowing the turnover of new uses and classes in established New York neighborhoods, it was immediately copied by cities around the U.S. The fact that local governments had never exercised their powers in this way was of little concern. To fortify their claim to these newfound powers, several states passed “zoning enabling acts,” which explicitly gave municipalities broad power over land use decisions.  

Zoning policy reached the national stage in 1924. Then-Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover saw government planning as a clear improvement over free-market urban development. To promote the use of zoning nationwide, he convened a panel of experts to write a Standardized State Zoning Enabling Act (SZEA) that states could copy. Hoover believed that through the Act communities could create “reasonable neighborly agreements as to the use of land.” 

Early zoning was not so neighborly toward renters. In 1926, Supreme Court Justice George Sutherland wrote in a landmark decision, Village of Euclid v. Ambler Realty Co., that “very often the apartment house is a mere parasite” on a neighborhood. Unfortunately, the legacy of those zoning decisions, and views toward “other housing types” remains largely unchanged in modern times.  

Most single-family detached communities are located in and around well-funded schools, low crime and highly rated “quality of life” amenities. Any attempt to change this dynamic by increasing density or allowing additional housing types can be viewed as an attack on the American Dream itself, no matter how great our housing needs may be.  

Despite all the passion and government incentives that may be invested into zoning reform, the success or failure of these efforts will depend on whether the owners of single-family detached homes are convinced these changes ultimately benefit them. Residents may both acknowledge the problematic history of single-family detached zoning and express concern that zoning changes may devalue their most valuable asset: their home.  

There is no reason to believe that the liberalization of zoning will result in the elimination of standalone structures and quarter-acre lots. Far from it. Most jurisdictions allowing ADUs, for example, have seen ADUs utilized on less than 1% of eligible properties. That is hardly a recipe for wholesale changes to one’s community. 

Land-use regulations may be intended to protect the environment or people’s health and safety, and even to enhance the supply of affordable housing, but in excess, they restrict housing supply, drive up home prices, and limit mobility. The growth of our economy and the vibrancy of our cities depend on our ability to provide both good jobs and decent, safe, and affordable housing in communities in which people want to live.  

Without housing at the right prices and in the right places, the economy runs the risk of continuing its slow-growth path, which denies opportunity to all of us.  

Land-use regulations have their place–no one should have to live next to a power plant or landfill— but as a nation, we need to ask whether we have taken regulations to excess. It is in the interest of states and cities to think through the implications of regulations that have developed over time and change them where they are now doing more harm than good. Maryland REALTORS® will continue to advocate for solutions that help sustain healthy and balanced communities and real estate markets.