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Can Denser Zoning Make Housing More Affordable? In NYC, It's Not That Simple

Rowhouses in Harlem, New York

Once a niche topic, zoning reform has made its way to the front pages of America’s biggest papers and the top of urban activists’ wish lists.

Advocacy groups and officials across the nation are scrutinizing the zoning laws that keep entire swathes of their cities covered in single-family homes. Eliminating single-family zoning, they argue, will encourage the construction of duplexes, apartment buildings and other denser housing, which will help alleviate the crushing demand for housing that has rendered so many American cities utterly unaffordable.

Minneapolis took a bold step last December, abolishing single-family zoning citywide. Seattle, meanwhile, has been locked in a protracted turf war over its plans to densify 27 neighborhoods.

In the nation’s largest housing market — New York City — the question of whether densifying zoning actually makes housing more affordable is especially tough to parse.

“It’s a thorny issue with an immense number of stakeholders,” said Frank Chaney, of counsel at Rosenberg & Estis and an adjunct professor at the NYU Schack Institute of Real Estate. “Just going in with a broad brush, eliminating single-family zoning and trusting the invisible hand to do its work is probably not the best way to go about this.”

Zoning laws slice up many of the nation’s cities, restricting what kinds of buildings can occupy what areas and how densely those areas can be developed. Opponents of strict zoning say the laws harm organic urban growth, effectively freezing whatever kind of use is already in place.

They also argue that zoning laws entrench socioeconomic and geographic barriers that keep affluent neighborhoods booming and leave underserved neighborhoods struggling.

Generally, the economics makes sense: increase the housing supply, and the cost of housing should decrease. But Chaney, who worked in the NYC Department of City Planning for over a decade before becoming an attorney, said that in a market as large as New York City, the effects of density are not so simple.

“When you increase the supply of housing in a neighborhood, you’re simultaneously increasing demand for housing in that neighborhood, which tends to drive housing prices up,” Chaney said. “That’s why some people think that increasing density doesn’t necessarily result in affordability.”

This line of thinking, known as supply skepticism, has largely been debunked, but Chaney admits that there are larger market forces at work. He pointed to the early and mid-2000s and the last seven years in New York City — two eras booming with construction, but over which affordability did not budge.  


Cities that eliminate single-family zoning wholesale may not end up with the kinds of housing they want. Without proper regulations in place, Chaney said, the free market tends less toward affordable and workforce housing and more toward luxury condos.

The best way for NYC’s government to solve the housing crisis through zoning, he said, might not be to densify, but instead to cut down the city’s gargantuan Zoning Resolution

The original resolution, passed in 1961, was 300 pages long and included about 40 different zoning types. The document has since metastasized into three volumes and numerous sprawling appendices, with almost 60 sections dedicated to the zoning laws of specific neighborhoods in NYC.

The document contributes to multiple levels of bureaucracy. Projects that would bring much-needed housing to the city can be hung up in approvals for years just thanks to the resolution, Chaney said.

“The zoning resolution has become far too onerous and convoluted,” he said. “Some of the regulations date back 30 or 40 years to address situations that arose back then that serve no function whatsoever now. They just add to the process and cost of developing property.”

Scrapping the existing tangle of zoning laws in favor of a more concise document could align government and developers to address the housing crisis more quickly and effectively. And while rewriting New York’s zoning resolution would be a massive undertaking, Los Angeles has just rewritten its zoning code with the same purpose.

LA and New York have taken divergent approaches to zoning in the last few years, Chaney said, with LA supporting simpler, shorter laws, and NYC consistently adding complexity and requiring discretionary approvals. 

“We would have to bite a very big bullet,” Chaney said. “But if LA can do it, New York can, too. We were the first city to have a zoning code, and we shouldn’t surrender our primacy as an innovator in land use and zoning.”

This feature was produced in collaboration between Bisnow Branded Content and Rosenberg & Estis. Bisnow news staff was not involved in the production of this content.