Volume 111

Singling Out Single-Family Zoning

by John Infranca

Single-family zoning is increasingly under attack in both the popular press and scholarly journals. Critics highlight how zoning districts that allow only detached, single-family homes exacerbate racial and economic segregation and perpetuate wealth disparities. Although a few local and state legislatures have eased regulations to permit denser development in existing single-family neighborhoods, such neighborhoods remain the dominant component of American zoning. The power of local governments to impose zoning derives from the police powertraditionally understood as the power to legislate in furtherance of health, safety, and the public welfare. These traditional concerns seem to provide little justification for prohibiting duplexes and triplexes in single-family enclaves. Recognizing this, many early zoning proponents feared that courts would strike down exclusively single-family districts. They confronted criticism that such zoning was merely aesthetic in nature and any actual benefits it conferred were problematically limited to those wealthy enough to live in a single-family home.

This Article provides an intellectual and legal history of single-family zoning districts. While others have documented the history of zoning generally, the discrete justifications for single-family districts have not been closely examined. This Article explains how a number of prominent early supporters of zoning, through writings and speeches, formulated distinct arguments in defense of single-family districting and refined those arguments in the face of legal challenges. Supporters justified single-family zoning as one component of a comprehensive zoning regime grounded in careful consideration of a community’s existing needs and future demands. Because comprehensive zoning itself constituted a valid exercise of the police power, they argued, it rendered valid individual components, including single-family districts, that may not have been independently justified.

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