Researchers Launch Unprecedented Survey of Local Regulations With ‘Zoning Atlas’

For better or for worse, real estate is local. Driven by county- and city-level land-use laws, individual neighborhoods and towns can offer vastly different opportunities and challenges for housing. On the plus side, this allows a local expert (hopefully, every real estate agent) to guide buyers and sellers to a uniquely tailored living situation. At the same time, many zoning codes and maps are inaccessible, inconsistent and often at odds with sustainable, equitable growth.

As policymakers have sought to address some of these long-running issues with zoning, the first step is parsing out tens of thousands of different zoning codes and maps across the country—a monumental task, but one that a group of academics and land experts are taking on with a project called the National Zoning Atlas.

“Our hope is that we unlock zoning’s ‘black box’ by centralizing information about zoning in a one-stop shop,” said Sara Bronin, a professor at Cornell University, who is leading the project. “We aim to digitize, demystify and democratize U.S. zoning codes.”

The project, which has been under development for about a year and a half, launched officially with an interactive map of around 2,000 zoning districts, allowing anyone to view data on everything from the specific neighborhood zoning boundaries to where multi-family homes can be built without a public hearing.

While explicitly aimed at advocates and policymakers, the project has the potential to help everyone—homeowners or real estate professionals for example—understand obscure and otherwise almost inaccessible aspects of their local planning regions. 

“The National Zoning Atlas can be used by anyone, including property owners and developers, to understand how housing construction actually happens on the ground,” Bronin tells RISMedia. “Is there a public hearing process?  How many units are allowed?  Is there a height cap? Are accessory dwellings allowed? The online version of the atlas answers all of these questions.”

This kind of data has obvious uses for real estate professionals, from lead generation and targeted marketing campaigns, to helping buyers understand the deeper and long term trajectories of different neighborhoods. But the project has much bigger goals, aiming to turn the whole mess of zoning across the country into a digestible and accessible database for public use.

The atlas launched with 2,000 districts already mapped, spread across 30 states and covering the residences of 33 million Americans. This represents only a fraction of the roughly 32,000 zoning authorities across the country, but Bronin said her small team of 13 people are already at work mapping out 8,000 more, with the goal of building a map of every single zoning district.

“Translating zoning regulations will keep us busy for a few years,” Bronin says. “(W)e’re hoping to add more layers depicting some of these complementary land use rules in the future.”

Eventually, this could include everything from property taxes to inland wetlands regulations, and other critical housing-related regulations that are also mostly set at the local level difficult to access. 

Gathering all this data has required Bronin and her team to do things the hard way, sometimes even traveling to places where there is no digital map or data to photograph zoning maps with their own equipment. The team also had to find ways to standardize much of the disparate jargon, definitions and practices of thousands of regions—something that the MLS industry has also struggled with.

Future work is dependent on funding, Bronin says. But zoning has become a key focus of policymakers—both in many local jurisdictions, as well as at the federal level—and the project is debuting at a key moment in the larger evolution of how housing is permitted, planned and funded.

“For us, the main question is, how is anybody supposed to understand zoning, how is anyone supposed to influence it when you don’t even know what your town’s zoning code says?” Bronin asked.

With an ongoing and unrelenting crisis of housing supply, many policymakers and advocates are pointing out how restrictive zoning codes have contributed to everything from housing shortages to racial inequities. Zoning reform has been a key piece of the Biden administration’s housing policy, and other recent legislation, including a trillion-dollar 2021 bipartisan infrastructure bill, has sought to incentivize zoning changes.

Bronin herself chairs a key federal advisory council on historic preservation, a role that required confirmation by the Senate. She also recently agreed to serve on a “housing council” formed by Airbnb, aimed at finding ways to increase housing supply.

Bronin says she is in the process of shifting the National Zoning Atlas into an independent non-profit. Currently the project is hosted by Cornell.

“The National Zoning Atlas currently works with about eighty-five collaborating institutions, which is amazing but, really, it’s just a start, given the scope of this effort—30,000 potential cities and towns around the country, tens of thousands of individual zoning districts to log, and an ongoing need to develop infrastructure for maintenance and updating as codes change,” she explains.

The project plans to add six more states by the end of the first quarter of this year, according to Bronin.

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