The Black Box of Single-Family Zoning Reform

71 Pages Posted: 11 Mar 2024

See all articles by Brian Connolly

Brian Connolly

University of Michigan Stephen M. Ross School of Business

Date Written: February 1, 2024


America faces a staggering housing affordability crisis. The consequences of the crisis include reduced economic productivity, suppressed labor mobility, social inequity, and increased homelessness. A scholarly consensus blames excessive land-use regulation for these problems and advocates now call for deregulation. Several jurisdictions have recently elected to allow middle housing—small, multi-family developments—in areas previously zoned for single-family detached housing. However, the results of these reforms have been disappointing. This Article examines why they have fallen short and how to do better.

This Article identifies an analytical disconnect between the deregulatory consensus and actual, legislated single-family zoning reforms adopted to-date. Given this disconnect and single-family zoning reforms’ limited success thus far, it is puzzling to understand why such reforms continue to be adopted. Moreover, these reforms cannot achieve their promised ends. Interviews of middle-housing builders in reform jurisdictions reveal legal and structural barriers that prevent market participants from responding to the housing crisis with scale and urgency. This Article proposes several regulatory alternatives that offer a greater probability of success in achieving the consensus’s goals: (1) modest expansions of multi-family zones to allow redevelopment and densification of underutilized non-residential properties; (2) providing affordable-housing density bonuses; (3) streamlining land-use procedures and eliminating administrative delay to reduce uncertainty in permitting processes; and (4) reevaluating financing mechanisms for new housing development. Taken together, these policies are necessary complements to single-family zoning reforms for addressing undersupply of market- and below-market-rate housing.

Keywords: zoning, land use, housing, single-family zoning, affordable housing, local government, state government

Suggested Citation

Connolly, Brian, The Black Box of Single-Family Zoning Reform (February 1, 2024). Boston College Law Review, Forthcoming, Available at SSRN:

Brian Connolly (Contact Author)

University of Michigan Stephen M. Ross School of Business ( email )

Ann Arbor, MI
United States

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