Federal and state code reform heats up
Six months ago, Public Square reported on state and city code reform efforts to allow missing middle housing types and reduce exclusive single-family zoning. Those efforts are gaining momentum in federal and state government—even as CNU is stepping up its Project for Code Reform (PCR), which has contributed to new urbanist expertise in this area.
The Biden administration is proposing a $5 billion competitive grants program in the infrastructure bill (American Jobs Act) to “eliminate exclusionary zoning and harmful land use policies” in cities, towns, and regions. The proposal specifically mentions “minimum lot sizes, mandatory parking requirements, and multifamily housing,” issues CNU members often address in code reform and form-based codes.
On the legislative side, a bipartisan bill has been introduced in the US Senate that is proposing $300 million annually in grants to remove barriers to housing construction while avoiding displacement. “The grants come in two stripes: planning grants to help local leaders design their housing policy plans, and implementation grants to help them put these plans into action,” according to a Bloomburg CityLab report. The Housing Supply and Affordability Act, sponsored by Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar, with fellow Democratic Senator Tim Kaine of Virginia and Republican Senator Rob Portman of Ohio, is aimed at funding cities of all sizes—including rural communities. This lines up with PCR, which mostly assists small cities and towns. Nearly 36,000 local governments have land-use authority in the US, and the vast majority are small cities and towns, with limited resources to tackle land-use reform.
The Biden proposal and Senate bill are substantial, compared to grant programs in the last 20 years that align with new urbanist ideas. Ten years ago, Obama’s Sustainable Communities Initiative totaled approximately $100 million annually—and that was a good deal of money.
State code reform efforts are also moving forward. A recent bipartisan bill proposed in North Carolina (NC 349) is especially well written. It would enable up to 4-plex housing in residential areas, allow accessory dwelling units (ADUs) everywhere without parking requirements or conditional use permits, and prevent downzoning in areas with water and sewer. It would stop municipalities from banning nonindustrial uses (e.g. apartments) as a “nuisance,” unless the uses pose a serious threat to health, safety, or welfare. That provision effectively reverses the premise of the 1927 Euclid, Ohio, law that set the foundation for single-use zoning. That would be a big deal.
The bipartisan nature of these legislative initiatives is significant—behind it is the potential of code reform to promote affordable housing and property rights.
Whether through competitive grants programs or as the result of state legislation, municipalities will need guidance as they eliminate exclusionary housing policies. The barriers can be eliminated without drastically changing the appearance of neighborhoods. In fact, beauty and quality of life may be significantly improved with code reform that opens up opportunities for “missing middle” and affordable housing. That’s where CNU and its members really shine.