Snob Zones by Lisa Prevost

In cities across America, residents balk at the idea of density. "Putting twenty-eight homes on just under four acres is crazy." This is almost the exact density of my neighborhood in Northeast Minneapolis which seems perfect to me. My yard is just the right size to mow with a reel lawn mower, but still large enough for my vegetable garden and dogs to run a little. I understand some people do not want to hear their neighbors talking or see them from their back yard, but cities cannot all wait for the next town over to provide more housing. This may have been accepted as recent as the 1980's, but those kinds of development plans are no longer legal.

The author, through examples in northeastern cities, demonstrated how snobby many of our cities and their residents have become. In one case, the town of Darien banned all apartments because they felt it was not necessary to provide all possible residential environments. This lasted well into the 1980's. Too many cities were looking out for themselves instead of thinking about the collective good. They were waiting for the next town over to provide affordable housing, a development strategy that is doomed to fail. These types of zoning practices are very discriminatory because it keeps an entire segment of the population from living in a certain city advances the welfare of a select group.

Zoning has been around for almost 100 years now and was legally supported in 1926 by the famous Euclid V. Ambler case. In addition to allowing cities to regulate and separate land uses, it also targeted multi-family dwellings stating they were incompatible with single-family dwelling neighborhoods, despite both uses being residential. It seems odd that a multi-family home could do so much damage to a single-family home if it was designed properly. I have lived in neighborhoods where my neighbor in a single-family home was far more disruptive to me than an triplex would have been. 

Most people object to crowding, noise and congestion. Density is not always synonymous with these traits. Their is such a thing as "good" density. The author defines it as varied, interesting architecture, connected to the neighborhood, walkable, contributing a sense of identity, and green space. I live in a neighborhood with good density. 

Zoning regulations that protect large lots are outdated and should be removed. Residents who wish to live in those cities or neighborhoods either have to find a way to afford a lot too large for their family or they find somewhere else to live. Additionally, large lots take up more space and diminish the opportunity for more homes to be built.

A study cited in the book showed that providing affordable housing is an economic development tool. If you plan to grow your job base, you need to provide homes for people starting out their careers. An aggressive inclusionary zoning program in Montgomery County, Maryland led to a dramatic gain in school performance among low incomes students. The author demonstrated that restrictive zoning regulations limit affordable housing which bars low-income children from good schools. Kids are the future of our cities. Making sure they receive a quality education is imperative to ensuring they will be prepared to enter the job market.

Many cities have started workforce housing programs to help the situation. The problem with many of these programs are residency preferences. It is understandable municipalities would want to give first priority to residents in the city already, but this can lead to banning certain types of people that were never financially able to live in the city in the first place. 

Despite the bleak portrayal of several American cities, the book leaves off with a hopeful tone. Many communities are taking charge of their affordable housing situation to ensure everyone in their community has the option of living in safe, well connected housing. Most urban cities have stepped up, now its time for the suburbs to follow.