Many Cities Fail to Connect Restrictive Land Use Policies with Homelessness

A brief published by researchers from Boston University, Cornell University, and Community Solutions, “Cities, Zoning, and the Fragmented Response to Homelessness,” explores the extent to which cities address underlying housing and land use issues in their approaches to solving homelessness. Many cities have in place restrictive zoning policies that hinder or prohibit the development of multifamily housing, including subsidized housing and housing designed for individuals experiencing homelessness. The authors of the brief argue that such policies cause housing shortages that lift rent prices, spurring increases in homelessness. Thus, cities can address homelessness by reforming land use and zoning policies. Yet many municipal governments do not understand the links between homelessness and zoning policies, stymying their efforts to end homelessness.

The authors analyzed the homelessness plans of the 100 largest cities, as well as a nationally representative survey of mayors. Of the 100 cities, only 54 had homelessness plans. Most homelessness plans discussed eviction (61%) and housing affordability (87%) at least once, indicating some degree of recognition that broader housing market conditions contribute to homelessness. However, the plans largely failed to draw connections between land use and homelessness policies, with only 30% of the plans mentioning land use. The survey of mayors yielded similar results, with only 32% of mayors indicating that they believed zoning and land use policies were a significant barrier to addressing homelessness in their cities. 

Cities were much more likely to have housing plans than homelessness plans, since many states require localities to develop housing plans. Ninety-nine of the 100 cities in the study had some form of a housing plan. Seventy-six percent of the housing plans mentioned homelessness. Yet only 18 of the cities, and 24% of cities with housing plans, explicitly linked land use and homelessness in their housing plans.

The authors encourage local policymakers to integrate housing and land use planning into their homelessness policies. Further, they call for the federal government to offer additional incentives – like those provided in the Biden-Harris administration’s recently released Federal Strategic Plan to Prevent and End Homelessness – to state and local governments to reform their zoning policies.

Read the brief at: