Zoning Reform – Is It Really That Important?

sign mounted on fence with detailed description of changes proposed for three residential lots
Zoning change notice.

We’ve heard it all before. Zoning is blocking the path to building new housing. But when you read this article from National Public Radio (NPR), you begin to get an idea of the scope of the problem.

For example, in Houston, Texas, the minimum lot size was 5,000 square feet (464 square metres) before zoning reform brought it down to 1,400 square feet (120 square metres)1!

The NPR article spends quite a bit of attention on Minneapolis, which has led the United States in zoning reform. The changes affect all neighourhoods in the city. The zoning reforms have been in place long enough to see how the different measures are working.

Accessory dwelling units have not progressed as well as was hoped in Minneapolis. An expert interviewed by NPR for the article thinks that the unit size is the issue.

Meanwhile, Boise, Idaho seems to have come up with the right formula to start the accessory dwelling unit pipeline flowing in that city. According to an article in Next City, the parking and ownership rules both needed to change.

Does every city need to follow Boise’s lead to see a flood of applications for accessory dwelling units? The consensus emerging from the experts in the NPR article is that local solutions, which pay attention to local regulations, are going to have more success in the long run. Harking back to the Houston example, it’s not difficult to see why.

The details in these articles are specific to the United States. The issue isn’t unique to the US, though. Every country has land use and building regulations that could be blocking the construction or operation of housing that is urgently needed.

The NPR article offers links to many studies of zoning reform across the continental United States. It is complemented by one from Politico, which reports on reforms at the state level and assesses the prospects for federal leadership. Here are links:

NPR: The Hottest Trend In U.S. Cities? Changing Zoning Rules To Allow More Housing

POLITICO: Political Leaders Are Finally Responding to the Housing Crisis. They Need to Move Faster.

And for details about Boise’s success with accessory dwelling units, read more at Next City2: Boise’s Zoning Reform Is Actually Working – ADU Permits Are Surging


  1. For reference, the floor area of a three bedroom home is 1,000-1,200 square feet (90 to 110 square metres)
  2. Next City provides three free reads per month. For more free reads, you will need sign up with an email address.