How exclusionary zoning created Salt Lake City (and how policymakers are responding)

This piece of analysis was submitted by professional urban planner and Salt Lake City resident Alicia Seeley. Have your opinions and analysis printed by emailing info@buildingsaltlake.com. Sign up to get our free emails in your inbox. Support our endeavor by becoming a Member today.

The current housing shortage has its roots in decisions favoring low-density development for the wealthy and segregating poverty. Today, historic policies limit housing choices, not just for the poor but for everyone, and policymakers are taking action.

Neighborhoods matter. The neighborhood you grew up in largely determines the likelihood you went to college, how much you earn, and even how long you will live. A few miles can mean the difference of up to 30 years of life expectancy and over 30 percent income, according to a 2016 study.

Salt Lake City, like most other American cities, has concentrations of poverty and wealth, and vastly unequal access to resources by neighborhood. This doesn’t happen by chance, but by policy.

Zoning is the invisible hand regulating development. It’s something most people never think about, yet it plays a crucial role in determining whether you live in a walkable neighborhood or a food desert, why most of your neighbors probably look like you, and whether you have access to green spaces, public amenities, and economic opportunities.

Understanding Salt Lake’s housing crisis requires an understanding of its history of exclusionary zoning–a practice of using seemingly innocuous regulations as a tool of racial and economic segregation. As city and state leaders race to provide more affordable housing, many have looked to zoning reform for answers. Diving into legacy zoning codes can help us understand how so many have been excluded, and perhaps provide a path to repairing past and present harms with more equitable and inclusive urban development.

Over 60% of Salt Lake City’s residential land is zoned exclusively for single-family homes, though a recent policy update could change that. Graphic by Alicia Seeley. (Click to enlarge.)

What is Exclusionary Zoning? A Short History Lesson

American cities began implementing zoning regulations in the late 1800s, operating under the guise of separating incompatible uses, such as prohibiting an industrial factory from operating next to a school or apartment building. 

While it does serve this purpose, the more powerful impetus behind zoning has always been (surprise) homeowners worried about their property values. And according to 19th century NIMBYs, the surest way to protect your property value was to keep white neighborhoods white and rich neighborhoods rich.

Early zoning regulations were weaponized as a tool for racial exclusion in the name of ‘neighborhood character’. The first example of this appeared in Modesto, California, in 1885, when the city passed an ordinance prohibiting laundries owned by residents of Chinese-origin from locating anyplace except in an area known as Chinatown; laundries owned by others could operate anywhere. 

Other cities quickly caught on, and exclusionary zoning spread like wildfire. In 1917, there were only eight American cities with zoning ordinances. Just 20 years later, there were 1,246. (Fischel, 2004)

Homeowners banded together and adopted covenants that would prohibit their neighbors from selling homes to Black Americans (Kahlenberg and Quick, 2019). It wasn’t until 1948 that the Supreme Court deemed this practice unconstitutional (Shelley v. Kraemer, 1948). It took until 1968 for Congress to pass the Fair Housing Act, which clarified that it was illegal to discriminate due to race, color, national origin, religion, sex, familial status, and disability.

Although explicitly racist regulations were outlawed, white homeowners across the nation found other ways to use zoning to keep their neighborhoods segregated. The Fair Housing Act notably does not prohibit class-based discrimination, leaving a loophole for continued systematic exclusion. 

Instead of barring people due to their race, zoning regulations effectively took the role of a height chart at a roller coaster entrance with a sign that says, ‘you must make at least this much money to live here.’ Arguably the most widespread and effective regulations for this organized discrimination? Minimum lot sizes and single-family zoning. Here’s how.

Graphic by Alicia Seeley. (Click to enlarge.)

What is a Minimum lot size requirement, and what does it look like in Salt Lake City?

A minimum lot size requirement stipulates the absolute smallest parcel of land on which someone can build a house in a given zone. 

This regulation effectively keeps low-income households out of high-income neighborhoods by setting a high minimum land cost barrier for entry. 

Coupled with that, many jurisdictions zone large swaths of land for single-family only, so the cost burden of a large lot cannot be shared by more than one household. As these laws persisted over decades, more land was allotted to house fewer families. Up until a couple of months ago, over 60% of residential land in Salt Lake City exclusively allowed single-family homes, according to a review of the city’s GIS data.

As the overall pie continues to shrink (the proverbial pie being the amount of land and housing available), lower income families aren’t the only ones affected. Even white, more affluent college graduates are feeling the squeeze as they struggle to find housing in high-opportunity neighborhoods (IE: neighborhoods with low poverty rates and high access to jobs and public amenities).

Examining how minimum lot sizes drive up housing costs and segregate communities. By Alicia Seeley. (Click to enlarge.)

What are lawmakers doing about it?

The ongoing housing crisis in Utah has put tremendous pressure on lawmakers and local leaders to assess how current regulations limit the creation of more naturally affordable housing. This process spurred a landmark zoning provision introduced at the end of 2023.

Salt Lake City’s new citywide zoning provision is a game-changer. It permits lots to host up to four units, allowing existing lots to be subdivided, with each unit having its own lot. Notably, these new lots are exempt from minimum lot area, lot width, and lot frontage requirements, fostering a more flexible and innovative approach to urban development.

The momentum for change doesn’t stop at the city limits. The state may not be ready to follow suit, after a bill in the Utah House proposed allowing up to four home lots on parcels exceeding 12,000 square feet in urban areas across the state, in an effort to create more starter homes. The bill didn’t get a hearing before its sponsor conceded defeat due to lack of support.

Cautious Optimism

It is good news that Salt Lake City is bidding farewell to single-family-only zoning. The new zoning amendment encourages developers to create more units on fewer lots, promoting a more diverse range of housing options. This can not only increase housing supply but also enhance affordability in neighborhoods that were previously out of reach for many. Furthermore, it fosters more sustainable development and supports transit-oriented initiatives.

Despite these positive changes, the reality is that these neighborhoods aren’t exactly drowning in vacant lots. They are already full of low-density homes. It took decades of exclusionary policies to make Salt Lake look like it does today. It’s not reversible overnight. It will likely be a long time before we see a meaningful increase in the city’s housing supply and see these neighborhoods densify and diversify.

There will be additional hurdles on the path to better housing policies, including potential community pushback and concerns over ‘neighborhood character’ and increased parking demand, which are ever-present in conversations about density. 

But as of now, the recent zoning changes are a huge win for Salt Lake. While the transformation may be gradual, the seed has been firmly planted, and the city is taking concrete steps to plan for a more inclusive future.

Alicia Seeley is a professional urban planner living and working in Salt Lake City.

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