Zoned out of a home: Single-family zoning dominates Las Vegas, but critics say it’s making the affordable housing crisis worse

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Friday, Sept. 6, 2019 | 2 a.m.

The city of Las Vegas recently approved financing for a 480-unit, majority-affordable housing complex off South Decatur Boulevard and Alta Drive, a much-needed addition to the region’s affordable housing stock, city officials said.

But don’t expect to see a similar project approved in most of Summerlin, or Henderson’s Anthem neighborhood, at least not anytime soon. That is in part because of local zoning laws that severely restrict or prohibit the development of more affordable housing options, such as duplexes, triplexes and multifamily housing.

A recent analysis by The New York Times found that 75% of residential areas in the United States are zoned exclusively for single-family homes. Originally designed to move industrial and other unpleasant land uses away from residential neighborhoods, zoning codes shifted in the early- to mid-20th century to also regulate specific types of residential units.

By making it illegal in certain neighborhoods to build anything other than single-family homes, zoning became a way for communities to exclude people perceived as undesirable—typically lower-income individuals who couldn’t afford a single-family home, said Benoy Jacob, an associate professor at UNLV’s Greenspun College of Urban Affairs.

“Zoning was once this tool to bring order to the city and limit these externality effects. It then becomes a tool of maintaining the status quo and certain sets of preferences,” said Jacob, whose expertise includes land use planning and urban trends.

An initial impact of single-family zoning was intense segregation by class and by race, which persists in American cities to this day. But as more and more cities, including Las Vegas, now grapple with affordable housing shortages, single-family zoning is also restricting cities’ housing supply, especially when it comes to affordable housing.

“One of the things you see happen is as you have these fairly exclusive zoning areas, housing prices go up,” Jacob said.

Recognizing the relationship between housing supply and affordability, as well as the inequalities shaped by residential zoning, some U.S. cities are starting to question the merits of single-family zoning and even do away with it. Minneapolis voted in December to phase out zoning that only allows single-family homes. Oregon Gov. Kate Brown signed into law in August a measure that will force cities of more than 10,000 people to allow duplexes in every residential neighborhood.

Even some Democratic presidential hopefuls are picking up on the trend. Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker and Julián Castro have all introduced proposals that would, in one way or another, incentivize cities to reform their zoning codes to increase higher-density housing options.

Like many cities in the West, Las Vegas’ growth began after the advent of the car, as suburbanization was taking off in the United States. At the time, the Las Vegas Valley had no shortage of undeveloped land, making it an ideal place for those in search of more space at a lower cost.

“When people came West, they were looking to be able to stretch their arms, a place to park the car. … Las Vegas, like much of the West, has embraced that philosophy over the past 50 years,” said Geoff Schumacher, Las Vegas journalist and author of Sun, Sin and Suburbia: An Essential History of Modern Las Vegas.

This history has had a pervasive effect on the Valley: 62% of all dwelling units in Las Vegas are single-family homes, said Marco Velotta, senior management analyst in the Las Vegas Planning Department.

As one of the fastest-growing regions in the country, the Las Vegas Valley is starting to encounter some of the same issues facing other, older cities. Rents are rising rapidly, and the city lacks a solid supply of what urban planners call “missing middle housing”—duplexes, bungalows, condominiums and other smaller housing types that are affordable for middle- and working-class people but aren’t permissible in single-family zones, Velotta said.

The region is also starting to run out of undeveloped land. Even though more land is available on the outskirts of Las Vegas and Clark County, environmentalists and some planners have raised questions about the effects of sprawl development on biodiversity, air quality and water supply.

“We have a fixed amount of water allocated to us from Lake Mead. … We can’t continue doing single-family residential for the mathematic purposes of water designation [alone],” Velotta said.

These are all factors that Las Vegas is considering as it prepares its 2050 Master Plan, a state-mandated effort that has the potential to shape zoning trends in the city for years to come. Without eliminating single-family zoning, the plan could recommend zoning reforms to allow higher density housing in some areas, Velotta said, particularly around transit hubs such as Downtown and Maryland Parkway.

“We want to make the case for change in a way that still addresses the underlying problem: Where are all these people going to live over the next 30 years that’s affordable and efficient?” Velotta said.

At the same time, the city hopes to preserve “stable” neighborhoods, such as master-planned communities with existing development plans like Summerlin and Skye Canyon.

“They’re going to build themselves out how they’re going to build, and that’s fine,” Velotta said.

Increasing density and implementing zoning reform in some parts of the city will expand the housing supply. But Jacob noted that it won’t necessarily address the other major critique of single-family zoning: its relationship to economic segregation and inequality.

“It can’t just be, ‘We need more multifamily units,’ ” Jacob said. “If you build them, but they’re not close to public transit, jobs and good schools, you haven’t really solved the problem.”

Mike Shohet, chief real estate development officer at the affordable housing nonprofit Nevada HAND, said his team regularly encounters this problem. It is relatively inefficient for Nevada HAND to develop affordable housing in areas zoned exclusively for single-family homes because of the higher cost of land per unit, Shohet said. In addition, single-family zoning usually comes with certain requirements for lot size and distance between the house and the street, further increasing production costs.

That’s why Nevada HAND has historically developed housing in areas that allow multifamily properties. But unfortunately, Las Vegas has a shortage of “good neighborhoods” that allow multifamily properties—neighborhoods with access to high-quality public schools, stable jobs and amenities like grocery stores, Shohet said.

“You end up with concentrations of poverty,” he explained.

Nevada HAND is now shifting its production approach, seeking to develop affordable housing in more desirable neighborhoods even if it means reducing the number of units per property to remain cost-effective. Nonetheless, zoning remains critical to the production of affordable housing, Shohet said, and exclusionary zoning policies have not helped the region’s affordable housing crisis.

Although he says single-family zoning won’t be eliminated in Las Vegas anytime soon, Velotta largely agrees.

“When you start marrying a couple of related concepts together, you start to see that we can’t continue building single-family residential,” Velotta said.

This story originally appeared in the Las Vegas Weekly.