How To Fail at Zoning Reform

Even modest zoning reform is politically contentious.


In August 2022, the Gainesville, Florida, city commission narrowly voted to eliminate single-family-only zoning and allow the construction of four-unit homes on all residential lots. In January 2023, a new city commission celebrated its first day in office by narrowly voting to repeal the fourplex legalization.

That quick reversal represented a stunning rebuke of "yes in my backyard" (YIMBY) housing reforms. It provided a valuable lesson: Even modest zoning reform is political and requires political thinking.

Three states, including California, and a handful of cities have ended single-family-only zoning. Several other states and localities are set to do the same this year.

These reforms typically allow two, three, or four homes in residential lots where only one home was allowed before. Such "upzoning" may seem like a revolutionary change in regulatory thinking, based on the recognition that the immutable laws of supply and demand apply to real estate. Proponents of increasing housing stock see these reforms as a beachhead for more sweeping changes.

Gainesville's zoning reversal shows that even modest zoning reform is politically contentious and that a wary public won't necessarily learn to live with the new rules once they are on the books. Pro-reform commissioners were not up for reelection and therefore did not have much to lose by pursuing a proposal that went beyond what many voters wanted.

The city's pro-reform former mayor told Bloomberg News that Gainesville lacked an activist group supporting its reforms until very late in the process. Meanwhile, residents opposed to fourplex legalization were involved and energized from the start. In cities such as Minneapolis and Portland, both supporters and opponents of reform were highly motivated and organized.

The fourplex fight also demonstrates that state governments can not only supersede onerous local restrictions but also undermine deregulation. Sensing a wedge issue in an otherwise progressive city, Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis' administration sued Gainesville over its zoning reforms, arguing that it was improperly leaving affordable housing production up to the market. In jurisdictions such as California and Oregon, by contrast, YIMBY laws have passed with the support of state political leaders.

YIMBY activists generally have been successful in places where they have spent a lot of time and energy creating large coalitions across all levels of government in support of modest reforms. In Gainesville, zoning liberalizers got ahead of their skis and fell flat on their faces.