Hawaii resident Trey Gordner, founder and CEO of a digital marketing company for public libraries, was pursuing his master’s degree in urban planning at Virginia Tech when some work in Connecticut attracted his attention. Desegregate Connecticut, a coalition formed in 2020 to address land-use issues that create exclusionary zoning policies, had completed its Connecticut Zoning Atlas in 2021.

The map is interactive and shows how the state zones for housing. Those who worked on the atlas found Connecticut overwhelmingly zones for single-family housing, ruling out a diverse array of housing and making affordable housing difficult to reach for many.

The Coalition’s work led to legislative reforms in Connecticut in the form of Public Act 21-29, which requires zoning regulations to promote housing choice and economic diversity in housing. The law, according to Desegregate Connecticut’s website, prevents towns from discriminating based on income sources like public assistance, and also prevents towns from capping the number of multi-family housing units, among other things.

Gordner said the work of Dr. Sara Bronin, founder of Desegregate Connecticut, showed scientific consensus that land-use regulations contribute to housing unaffordability.

Consensus: Land-Use Regulations Limit Marketplace, Contribute to Housing Unaffordability

Trey Gordner
Trey Gordner

He also pointed to an April paper titled “Measuring the Burden of Housing Regulation in Hawaii” that found government regulation has severely limited the ability of the housing market to create the units necessary to meet demand.

“Reforming or removing regulatory barriers to new housing production could significantly contribute to new housing production and ultimately reduce the burden that high housing costs place on local households and improve affordability in the state,” according to the report, drafted by scholars at UHERO, an economic research organization at the University of Hawaii.

A traditional American single-family home.
A traditional American single-family home. Credit: Stuart Monk / Shutterstock

Home prices in Hawaii are among the highest in the nation, with data from 2021 showing that the median home resale price across the state are about two and a half times the national median, according to the research.

Compared to Connecticut’s median home price of $350,000, in Hawaii it is $875,000. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Gordner said, 42% of Hawaii’s population was living in poverty or at least paycheck to paycheck. The cost of living has driven many people to leave the state, as many as 14,500 in 2021, he added.

“So there’s a clear need for a project like the zoning atlas to build awareness of this connection and serve as a rallying point for housing advocates and others concerned about these economic issues in the state,” Gordner said. Ultimately, he hopes the data produced from the Hawaii Zoning Atlas will result in reforms there similar to those enacted in Connecticut.

States Announce Plans to Create Their Own Zoning Atlases

Eight other states, including Hawaii, California, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Montana, New Hampshire, New York, and Ohio have now publicly announced their own zoning atlas projects. Many are looking to “How to Make a Zoning Atlas,” for their templates.

“Teams have emerged from nonprofits, from educational institutions, government agencies and even private entities, so it’s been really great to see the interest in the project,” Bronin said.

Dr. Sara Bronin
Dr. Sara Bronin Credit: Paul Cryan / Paul Cryan / Wikipedia

Bronin said that while the zoning atlas project started in Connecticut, the goal is to now use the same methodology to piece together a national story about zoning. 

What drew these organizations to the project, Bronin said, is that zoning codes are cloudy. “This (project) makes it more digestible and that in turn has the benefits of enabling people to make better decisions,” Bronin said. Those decisions go beyond just zoning, but also environmental planning and workforce development, she added.

Gordner said when taking one particular zoning class, he was shocked at the hundreds of pages of rules that govern the size, shape, placement, and uses of every building and every city and town in America. While some think of the home as just a place to live in, some think of it as an investment.

“Those things often come into conflict,” Gordner said.

An aerial view of the city of Honolulu, Hawaii, on the island of Oahu.
An aerial view of the city of Honolulu, Hawaii, on the island of Oahu. Credit: Mana Photo / Shutterstock

Gordner is heading up the team creating the Hawaii Zoning Atlas. Hawaii has some qualities that can make building there particularly difficult – it’s a group of mountainous islands where shipping costs are expensive. There are reef and fish habitats to be mindful of as well as proximity to the sea. The team is going to work very closely with the native Hawaiian population to ensure that their values and culture are taken into account.

“The native Hawaiin population certainly has a tougher time of it in many different areas – health, education – all the things that we think are important to society,” Gordner said. In addition, native Hawaiians are not recognized by the federal government like Native Americans.

“So they are treated very differently under the law compared to what you think,” Gordner said. 

In addition, the islands don’t have much interaction with each other, with Oahu being the most populated and featuring a more modern atmosphere that the other islands may not want for themselves, Gordner said.

Local Versus State

When it comes to zoning laws, local governments don’t always welcome state officials telling them what to do, according to Annette Mann Bourne, director of Research and Policy at HousingWorksRI (HWRI) at Roger Williams University in Rhode Island. 

“There is an unspoken tension between zoning being a local matter and any imposition or even interest by the state is viewed kind of suspiciously,” Bourne said.

Bourne is leading the team in Rhode Island coming up with that state’s zoning atlas. The team will present its work to date at GrowSmartRi’s “Power of Place Summit” later in the month. 

Bourne said decisions made around zoning are many times based on the “who knows who” mentality.

“We are stifling ourselves if we continue with that kind of pattern,” Bourne said.

HWRI releases a Housing Fact Book every year. The document outlines housing affordability data for the state’s 39 cities and towns.

The 2021 fact book describes how high unemployment during the pandemic and a historic increase in the cost of housing sharply defined Rhode Island’s economic outlook at the end of 2020, and beginning of 2021.

“The lists of municipalities where it is affordable to own or rent are at historic lows,” according to the document. “In 2020, for the first time since HousingWorks RI started to measure affordability against the state’s median household income, there are no municipalities where the median household income of $67,167 could affordably buy. Renters do not fare much better, given the state’s median renter income of $36,078. Burrillville is the one municipality where they could affordably rent.”

Zip Code Matters More

Above Newport Beach in Rhode Island.
Above Newport Beach in Rhode Island. Credit: KpertC / Shutterstock

Housing, Bourne explained, is identified as one of the “Social Determinants of Health,” along with other factors, including education and economic stability.

“Your life outcomes depend more on your zip code than your genetics,” Bourne said. 

Single-family zoning, as it does in Connecticut, makes up most of  Rhode Island’s land use.

Bourne said officials have to figure out ways to work with spaces including a commercial corridor near where she lives in Cranston, where there is a bus route that goes into Providence.  These commercial spaces are largely abandoned or always available for lease.

A hillside of housing is shown here in near downtown Providence and Brown University on July 23, 2015, in Rhode Island.
A hillside of housing is shown here near downtown Providence and Brown University on July 23, 2015, in Rhode Island. Credit: Nagel Photography / Shutterstock

“Why aren’t they more mixed-use developments where maybe there could be two or three stories of housing over commercial spaces?” Bourne asks. This sort of review adds a layer of analysis that can lead to a productive conversation, she added, as well as discussions about the northeast coastline – with its historic districts and rail stations, as a shared region between Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire.

HWRI analyzed the methodologies used by Desegregate Connecticut and Massachusetts Housing Partnership Transit Oriented Development Explorer in its work using GIS (geographic information system) mapping of zoning for single-family, two-family, multi-family, and mixed-use development, as well as the state’s low- and moderate-income housing, public infrastructure, and transit routes.

One of the main issues Bourne said she sees is that legislation doesn’t seem to lead to affordable housing.

“My work centers around people who can’t afford housing and I know that if you are earning a minimum wage, you need at least two-and-a-half jobs to afford pretty much anywhere in the United States at this point,” Bourne said.

Gordner said he also found it alarming at how widespread the housing affordability issue is. He said his hope is that people can come together to work on a prosperous future.

“If every city has an affordability problem then that looks like a government failure of some kind,” he said. “There is a problem with the way that we do things.”