Could a big map solve affordable housing?

An ambitious project seeks to make confusing zoning regulations more accessible.

The simplest solution to a housing shortage would seemingly be to build more housing, but that’s often complicated.

Several cartoon images of houses and apartment buildings on a gray background surrounding an orange zoning map.

Many municipalities have outdated zoning regulations that do not allow for density — apartments, townhouses, duplexes, etc. — in in-demand neighborhoods, leading to rising housing costs and segregation across race and class.

Worse, these rules are often difficult to parse with confusing, convoluted language that varies from city to city.

But what if…

… you had one place where these rules were simple and easy to compare?

That’s the idea behind the National Zoning Atlas, a project from Cornell University professor Sara Bronin, per Business Insider.

The research project’s ambitious goal is to make the regulations across the US’s ~30k jurisdictions easier to understand, implementing standard definitions, and allowing for “apples-to-apples comparisons” across cities.

For example: The atlas allows users to see on a map where people can build single-family homes, ADUs, apartments, and more, with filters for things like minimum parking requirements or height caps.

This is useful for both local lawmakers and residents who want to advocate for changes in their communities.

And have they?

Examining zoning laws has led to some change:

  • Montana passed new zoning regulations to curb urban sprawl after comparing its regulations to those of California — specifically LA, home of sprawl.
  • A Connecticut woman successfully petitioned her town to allow homeowners to build guest houses in their backyards.


… there’s still a long way to go. The National Zoning Atlas currently accounts for 2k jurisdictions — so, about ~7% of the US.

And whenever there’s a change or new construction, it usually leads to a lot of bickering and legal drama — which is exactly what’s happening in Montana with its new laws.

Still, knowledge is power and we’d never say no to more public data.

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