Why Conservatives Should Support Zoning Reform


February 15, 2024 1:30PM

Typically, proposed laws at the local level rarely get any attention, let alone make national news. But here in Tennessee, we’re anything but typical. Recently, several zoning reform proposals were introduced in Nashville’s Metro Council garnering considerable local and even some national media attention. Some of these proposed policies include eliminating the requirement that lots be a certain size in higher-density zoning districts, allowing apartments in districts typically reserved only for businesses, and allowing duplexes city-wide and triplexes and quadplexes in more areas of the city.

Sadly, there is often the habit of dismissing or being skeptical of ideas coming from people you typically disagree with. And these reforms proposed by liberal Nashville councilmen and women are no exception.  We’ve seen and heard more conservative Tennesseans express skepticism of these proposals. But rest assured, zoning reform is something that everyone, especially conservatives, should be in favor of. Here are four reasons why conservatives should support zoning reform:

1. Zoning laws are in essence a restriction on property rights

At their foundation, zoning laws regulate usage and density on private property. In other words, zoning laws determine what you can build on your property, how much you can build on it, and where you can build it.  Want to make some extra money by building and renting out a carriage house in your backyard? Probably not allowed as many jurisdictions often prohibit you from building them, let alone renting them out to a tenant. Got a way bigger yard than you need and want to subdivide your lot and sell it to someone else? Zoning laws like minimum lot sizes are likely to get in your way.

2. Zoning regulations prevent the free-market from working

We’ve all heard the law of supply and demand: the idea that when there is demand for a product or service, business will rush to meet that demand. But just like in so many other industries, the housing industry is prevented by the government from building enough homes to meet market demand. How? Well, when the vast majority of a city is zoned for single family homes with large minimum lot sizes only or commercial uses, there are literally only so many homes that can be built. That’s why one national housing group estimated Tennessee needed an additional 56,000 homes as of 2020. Zoning laws create an artificial shortage and bidding war that drives up prices, making it hard for low and middle-income families to afford housing, just like any other government meddling with the free market.

3. Zoning laws can rob property owners of value and investment potential

People often oppose zoning reform because of the assumption that it protects their home values. This is understandable, as a house is typically the largest investment somebody will make in their lifetime. However, there are many instances where zoning laws can have the opposite effect because they limit the allowable uses allowed on a piece of land. By allowing more uses—from allowing an Accessory Dwelling Unit (ADU) in your backyard to granting apartments to be built over commercial spaces—the value of a property can increase because it can be used for more things.

4. Zoning laws change existing communities by dictating urban sprawl 

One of the reasons you typically hear people hesitant to enact any kind of zoning or land-use reform is this sense of needing to protect the “character” of one’s community. That’s certainly noble. But talk to many long-time Middle Tennessee residents, especially those in the more rural fringes of the greater Nashville area and you’ll hear this sense of how their small-town community that they grew up with has been somehow “lost” in the recent growth of the past few years. If you’ve ever been to Atlanta, where I grew up, you’ve seen this first hand. As more and more people moved to Metro Atlanta, zoning laws incentivized and even mandated building out not up, and turned north Georgia into one giant metropolis of never ending subdivisions and excruciating traffic. That’s because zoning laws, the very tool people think will save their community, forces urban sprawl out to more rural areas for cheaper and available land to build on. Sure, particular streets might remain the same, but larger communities are transformed. By reforming zoning laws and allowing for more density, particularly in our urban cores, those who prefer a more dense, walkable community can do so. Meanwhile, those who prefer a more rural lifestyle but like having a larger metro within a reasonable drive can have that as well.

In this day and age, it’s rare for an issue to exist that can unite both sides of the ideological spectrum. But truly, pro-housing policies like zoning reform can be one of those issues. While reasons for supporting it may differ, there’s nothing more free-market than getting rid of or loosening arbitrary government regulations like zoning that restrict our property rights and prevent the free-market from doing what it does best.