Across the country, a growing number of state politicians are proposing or passing laws that override localities' ability to say no to new development. In Florida, Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis' administration is actively urging cities to knock off zoning reforms that legalize more housing.
Last week, Florida's Department of Economic Opportunity (DEO) sent a comment letter to Lauren Poe, Gainesville's mayor, recommending that the city withdraw a provisionally approved zoning amendment that allows two-, three-, and four-unit homes to be built in neighborhoods that were once zoned exclusively for single-family homes.
The legalization of this so-called "missing middle" housing "results in a scattered, unplanned, unfocused, and untenable approach to providing affordable housing," reads the department's letter, first reported by The Independent Florida Alligator. "This approach may result in fewer opportunities for providing access to affordable housing."
"I find it interesting that probably the most progressive [city] commission in the state of Florida is pushing to allow more property rights to bring down housing prices," counters Gainesville City Commissioner Adrian Hayes-Santos, who supported the city's zoning reforms. "A Republican executive branch under DeSantis is trying to stop people having more property rights."
In a tight 4–3 vote last month, Gainesville passed a zoning code amendment that allows up to four homes to be built on residential land citywide. The amendment also shrank the city's minimum lot size and setback rules, meaning newly legalized units can take up more land on smaller lots.
Proponents argue that allowing more housing units on individual parcels will grow supply and allow renters and homebuyers to split the increasing costs of land among more families. Both should make housing more affordable. After all, Gainesville's population is growing faster than its housing stock.
DEO raised a number of criticisms of Gainesville's approach. It argued that new rental housing stock would all be snatched up by the growing student population at the University of Florida, without benefiting city residents.
It also said the city hadn't done the necessary analysis of the strain increased citywide density would put on infrastructure, schools, and other public resources. The department said Gainesville had failed to study the impact of multifamily housing on the "character" and "stability" of single-family neighborhoods.
The letter echoes criticisms made by Gainesville neighborhood activists who've vocally opposed zoning reform, and who are threatening to sue the city if it moves ahead with a second, finalizing vote on the reforms.
The DEO's letter seems intent on bolstering that impending lawsuit, saying that if Gainesville fails to resolve the department's comments, then those comments "could form the basis of a challenge to the amendment."
Hayes-Santos argues that the DEO letter has numerous inaccuracies and conceptual flaws. The University of Florida's student population has remained flat for a decade, meaning new housing won't just benefit college students, he says. The idea that allowing more housing supply will make housing affordability worse just doesn't make sense, he adds.
"I believe this is a politically motivated thing," says Hayes-Santos.
Zoning reform is becoming a bipartisan movement, and it's not hard to see why. Free market advocates and conservatives see in it the promise of less regulation and enhanced property rights. Liberals and progressives like the idea of denser housing leading to more environmentally friendly, inclusive neighborhoods.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, has endorsed a slew of YIMBY ("yes in my backyard") reforms and beefed up state departments tasked with cracking down on anti-development jurisdictions that thwart state housing laws. Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin, a Republican, has fired rhetorical broadsides against restrictive zoning laws and the local governments that enforce them.
The federal YIMBY Act, a modest bill that requires jurisdictions receiving some federal grants to report on barriers to new housing construction, has managed to attract co-sponsors like conservative Sen. Tom Cotton (R–Ark.) and progressive Sen. Brian Schatz (D–Hawaii).
The flip side is that opposition to zoning reform also appears to cut across partisan lines. Florida's Republican-run state government is offering the same critiques of fourplex legalization that you might hear from progressive and socialist activists in Berkeley or San Francisco.
Hayes-Santos says the state's opposition isn't going to force the city to change course. He says they'll move ahead with a required second vote on the zoning amendment.
Next month, Gainesville is set to vote on abolishing requirements that new developments come with a minimum number of parking spaces—another prized YIMBY reform.