Zoning may hold key to affordable housing 

FOR RENT: The city of Asheville commissioned a Missing Middle Housing study to see if Asheville’s single-family zoning and other regulations may be contributing to a lack of townhomes, accessory dwelling units, duplexes and triplexes, and other affordable housing options. Photo by iStock

As Asheville homebuyers continue to face lengthy bidding wars and renters struggle to keep up with ever-rising costs, city leaders and housing advocates are using different tools to help alleviate the pressure. This year, they’re exploring a simple yet potentially effective solution that may hold the key to developing more affordable housing in the city: zoning ordinances.

The city of Asheville commissioned a Missing Middle Housing study to see if Asheville’s single-family zoning and other regulations may be contributing to a lack of townhomes, accessory dwelling units, duplexes and triplexes, and other affordable housing options. Another study will look at displacement risk. The city hired California-based Opticos Design and Oregon-based Cascadia Partners to conduct the studies. Together, the studies will cost $115,000.

To gather insights from residents, the city is holding a public workshop 4-7 p.m., Friday, Aug. 4, in the Banquet Hall at Harrah’s Cherokee Center, 87 Haywood St., in downtown Asheville. A public survey aimed at renters is active until Friday, Aug. 11.

Driven by segregation

Andrew Paul, who teaches history at A-B Tech and is the co-founder of the housing nonprofit Asheville for All, says that while the idea of separating neighborhoods from industrial or commercial areas through zoning was pretty commonplace throughout the 19th century, in the early 1900s, cities around the country began enacting zoning to explicitly keep communities segregated by race.

But in 1917, a law in Louisville, Ky., that prohibited Black people from living on a block where the majority of residents were white was found unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Paul says that to continue keeping minorities out of white neighborhoods, cities began passing zoning laws that didn’t explicitly ban certain races or ethnicities but had a similar effect. Known as exclusionary zoning, the practice banned certain types of housing developments, such as apartment buildings, townhomes and other multifamily homes from being built in the same areas as single-family homes.

“People basically figured out that if racial covenants are starting to look bad or you can’t explicitly say that Black people can’t live somewhere, you can still make it very hard for Black people to live in certain places because they don’t have access to wealth to put into housing,” Paul explains. “But we know this segregates us by race, just by virtue of generational wealth.”

​​The Supreme Court ruled in 1926 that exclusionary zoning restrictions could be used by cities to prohibit apartment buildings and other multifamily dwellings in certain neighborhoods.

“In New York City, it was done to keep poor Jewish workers out of certain neighborhoods. People in big department stores didn’t want workers from the garment industry walking by their stores. So, it started happening for a lot of different reasons,” Paul says.

Exclusionary zoning is not limited to banning multifamily homes. It also specifies that builders meet other criteria such as lot-size requirements, square-footage and parking-space minimums, and limits on building heights. “All of these things were ways of making the obstacle to homeownership a taller barrier,” Paul says. 

Limited options

Those laws contribute to the lack of so-called missing middle housing types that is still seen throughout the country. Duplexes, quadplexes, townhomes and other structures have largely been shut out of many cities, Paul explains. 

“If you look at a lot of American cities, the vast majority of neighborhoods have only single-family homes. And then if you look at downtown, you have high-rises. But there’s very few in between that, three, four-story apartments, very few duplexes,” Paul says. “It’s the spectrum with very small single-family homes on one end and very large, high-rises on the other.” 

Candra Teshome, who works as an urban planner in the Long Range Planning Division for the city of Asheville, says that roughly two-thirds of city neighborhoods are zoned for single, detached homes. 

“Essentially, the regulatory controls have made this type of housing missing from the housing landscape for the past 70 years or so,” says Teshome.

She notes that the city’s Comprehensive Plan, which provides guidance for citywide policy decisions over several years, including efforts to encourage construction of affordable housing, may be stifled by those same zoning ordinances. 

“The Comprehensive Plan identifies housing as a priority,” says Teshome. “I do not believe, though, that our zoning ordinance is quite aligned with the Comprehensive Plan.”

Opening the door 

Teshome says that the missing middle housing study, expected to be completed by fall, will identify aspects of the development code that may be a barrier to building middle-housing types, such as required setbacks and minimum parking requirements. 

The displacement risk analysis will examine how current and future zoning could impact lower-income households.

Once the study is complete, it’s up to Asheville City Council members whether zoning ordinances will change. Paul notes that while changing zoning laws may sound minor, it may be key to increasing housing stock. 

“How could the answer be as simple as more houses will bring down not just rents, but home prices?” says Paul. “It’s very counterintuitive to people — the idea that just changing our zoning code could make things more equitable could mitigate historic segregation. I think it can be counterintuitive even to people that really want to change things.”

For her part, Teshome says while she is careful not to predict Asheville’s housing market, increasing middle housing could have the power to reduce home costs.

“Opening things up to broader housing types, I think, may end up in having a greater supply of housing,” she says. “I don’t want to speculate, but I think an increase in supply can certainly help the housing market. Economists say that a vacancy rate of 5% is a healthy housing market. I think the point here is, if we can bring our 2.8% vacancy rate up to 5%, then the market may adjust itself, supply and demand may level out.” 


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4 thoughts on “Zoning may hold key to affordable housing 

  1. dyfed

    Amazing that the city has to spend 100k of your tax dollars to discover that making affordable housing illegal causes there to be less affordable housing than desired.

    Next thing you’re gonna tell me is that ordering a half dozen environmental and traffic studies to be done every time somebody wants to build apartments might cause the apartments to cost a lot more or not get built at all.

    That’ll be the day.

    • Peter Robbins

      The study probably won’t tell people (at least people who’ve been paying attention) anything they don’t already know about the baleful effects of single-family zoning on affordable housing (as well as on racial equity and climate change). But it may help build momentum for the difficult political decisions that lie ahead. I’m sure above-it-all cynicism will work just as well, though, so by all means, keep up the pressure on that front too.

  2. Jim Berel

    It’s not surprising that Asheville is making us pay for more studies fully intended to justify them coming for our neighborhoods now. Unlike most other cities that use multi family districts as natural buffers between commercial industrial areas and single family neighborhoods, Asheville once again thinks it knows better even though it’s screwed things up so badly for decades. Higher density and multi-family housing provide natural transitions from more intensive uses and quiet enjoyment areas of healthy neighborhoods of which multi-family areas are a part. They also take best advantage of thoroughfares, transit routes, sidewalks, etc. Make no mistake, the City simply wants to further destroy the zoning protections property owners have paid dearly for through their City taxes so that the City can keep squeezing more and more tax revenue out of formerly single family zoned areas. They love to call it equity and affordable housing, but it’s definitely the other thing. How does the ever increasing density and population help a City that already fails to maintain basic public services like water, streets, police protection, etc.? If growth is ever going to pay for growth, it needs to be through the preservation of neighborhood zoning that ensures hefty tax collections on those homes rather than creating blight through more awful policies and failure of stewardship.

    • gyp

      Jim, there’s a host of things to disagree with you on, but I want to raise one non-controversial point.

      There’s broad consensus that single-family-only sprawl means more upkeep costs per capita. The farther apart homes are, and the less people living on each plot, the more pipes, sewers, and roads that you need and the fewer people that are going to pay for it.

      With density, you get more people paying for less stuff. Urban3, a local urban planning research firm, has done a host of communication on this that has received national attention. And specifically, they’ve shown that even if hefty property taxes are levied, you still don’t get close to the amount of money needed.

      So with suburban land use patterns, you’re correct, growth is required to pay for growth, and it ends becoming what some people call the “postwar suburban Ponzi scheme.” But with more traditional land use patterns, we get more bang for our buck. (And more walkable neighborhoods to boot.)

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