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Most effective zoning policies take regional concerns into account

Arnab Chakraborty and colorful map
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L. Brian Stauffer

Arnab Chakraborty, a professor of urban and regional planning, says land-use planning that doesn't consider factors relating to the needs of the broader region has yielded some highly undesirable outcomes – from urban sprawl to a shortage of affordable housing for lower-income residents.

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3/16/2009 | Melissa Mitchell, Arts Editor | 217-333-5491; melissa@illinois.edu

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. –It’s not unusual for governments of neighboring communities to work cooperatively in planning and building transportation infrastructure or tackling environmental issues. But when it comes to zoning matters, most municipalities have adopted an approach best characterized by the Warren Zevon song “Splendid Isolation.”

The results of such policies are typically anything but splendid, says Arnab Chakraborty, a University of Illinois urban and regional planning professor. Land-use planning that doesn’t consider factors relating to the needs of the broader region has yielded some highly undesirable outcomes – from urban sprawl to a shortage of affordable housing for lower-income residents.

“Traditional approaches of local governments doing local zoning policy in isolation has not worked in the past 50 years,” said Chakraborty, who believes the key to better planning is greater cooperation among regional governing bodies.

It’s not hard to understand how zoning laws – which generally define areas where residential, commercial and industrial development is allowed – have evolved, in large part, for the greater good of most communities.

For instance, “if someone owns a property next door to you and builds a gas station, you wouldn’t like it,” Chakraborty said.

In some situations, however, zoning regulations have been used as an unintended tool for exclusion of low-income and minority residents, he said.

“Where jurisdictions don’t want a certain type of resident or certain type of housing in their communities they could say, ‘I’m only going to allow a large-size residential development in my community,’ and in effect, exclude smaller-size development. As it turns out, smaller-size apartments and condominiums tend to have lower-income residents, so in effect, they are excluding those residents.”

The existence of exclusionary practices is well established, he said, and many such regulations routinely have been challenged successfully in the court system through the years. But Chakraborty – along with a group of urban planning colleagues – wanted to dig deeper to determine whether zoning procedures actually reflect the society that creates them.

In other words, he said, “if you go back enough, would you see that the zoning is consistently, systematically dependent on a certain racial category or certain income types in this community?”

The research team, which included University of Maryland-College Park planning professor Gerrit-Jan Knaap, postdoctoral fellow Doan Nguyen and graduate student Jung Ho Shin, conducted an empirical analysis of the effects of high-density zoning on multi-family housing construction from 1990-2000 in suburbs of six U.S. metropolitan areas. Metro areas considered were Boston; Miami/Dade County, Fla.; Minneapolis-St. Paul; Portland, Ore.; Sacramento, Calif; and Washington, D.C.

Their study, which will be published in a forthcoming issue of the journal Urban Studies, yielded two key results, Chakraborty said. First, they found that zoning regulations limit the construction of multi-family housing to below market-determined levels. Further, they noted that despite a wide variation of governing structures among the metro areas, multi-family zoning constraints vary systematically with distance from the central city and the community’s racial composition in 1960.

“That means the communities that had a higher percentage of white population in 1960 had lower amounts of multi-family housing zoned in their municipalities,” Chakraborty said. “And the farther away they were from the central city, the less they had zoned for multi-family housing.”

The U. of I. professor noted that the distance factor could be explained and validated in part by economic theory that posits that “the closer you go (to the central city), the higher the value of the land – and the higher the value of land, the higher the density, because more roads and more services are available.”

Nonetheless, the recent research supports a body of evidence that zoning laws adopted by some jurisdictions a half-century ago have had detrimental effects on the pool of affordable housing in those communities.

“Many communities now recognize that the problem of exclusionary zoning contributed to sprawl and to income and racial segregation,” Chakraborty said. As a result, “many places are now proactively working to address these issues.

“One of the tools that’s been argued to be effective in addressing these issues is the tool called ‘inclusionary zoning,’ ” he said. While the precise nature of the tool varies, in general it refers to mandates local governments place on developers. When building new subdivisions, for instance, developers may be required to provide a certain percentage of higher density or less expensive units than what the market would otherwise bear, such as apartments, townhouses or condos.

Chakraborty and Knaap contributed to another empirical study with co-authors Antonio Bento, Cornell University, and Scott Lowe, Boise State University, which investigates the effects of such inclusionary zoning policies on housing prices and starts in California from 1988-2005. That study will appear in the spring issue of the journal Cityscape.

“We found that (in) these jurisdictions that have these policies, the developers tend to pass on those costs to the consumers who are buying the market-rate houses,” Chakraborty said. “And as a result, the housing values are higher, housing sizes are smaller, and the construction of new units is lower.”

The overall outcome of attempts to address unintended consequences of exclusionary practices and replace them with more inclusionary ones remain subject to interpretation.

“It is helping create more housing for low-income people, arguably, than it otherwise would have,” Chakraborty said. “But at the same time, there are costs associated. The jurisdictions are getting less development, and whatever development they are getting, the consumers are paying higher prices for it and getting smaller units.”

All of this research leads the U. of I. professor back to one of his primary convictions when it comes to adopting zoning practices that promote sound planning principles that also adequately address social equity issues such affordable-housing availability.

“If we are to solve the problem that the inclusionary zoning policies originally intended to solve in principle, we need more regional coordination,” he said. Currently, Chakraborty said, Portland, Ore., is the only area in the U.S. with an elected regional government charged specifically with regulating land use.

While there does appear to be ramping up of similar efforts nationwide on a smaller scale involving two or three adjacent communities, “it has to be a more organized and systematic fashion,” he said.

“What we see traditionally is that these municipalities work not in cooperation but in competition with their neighboring municipalities. So you see one jurisdiction make these inclusionary policies, but the development it pushes out, some jurisdiction next to it is eager to capture. And they say to the developer, ‘Hey, why don’t you come here?’ ”

In place of random, ad hoc inclusionary zoning, he said, “we need policies that these governments get together and talk about. If we have these policies in coordination, we have a more balanced approach to growth and can work out secondary-level policies that somehow compensate the jurisdictions that lose out on this growth through tax sharing agreements.

“There are models on how to do this,” he said.

Editor's note: To reach Arnab Chakraborty, e-mail arnab@illinois.edu.

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