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November 08, 2023 Feature

Enhancing Land Use Equity Through Improved Zoning

Lee Einsweiler

I. A Bit of Sad History

Zoning in the United States began to be formalized in 1922 when the Standard State Zoning Enabling Act was prepared by a committee of the United States Department of Commerce under then-Secretary Herbert Hoover. Zoning became one of the primary tools applied by cities to manage the use of land and the form of cities across the United States. “By the end of 1923, zoning was in effect in 218 municipalities, with more than 22,000,000 inhabitants . . . .” 1 And, of course, we know the trend continued from there to the point where almost all cities in the United States have adopted zoning today. The typical application of zoning was through the creation of a variety of zoning “districts” that allowed for specific building form (initially regulated primarily by height and building coverage) and specific uses. In the early days of zoning, these districts were often simply called “residential” and “industrial” districts, alluding to the allowed uses, and therefore linking directly back to public health, safety, and welfare—key determinants of whether zoning would be deemed legal. These early residential districts often allowed any form of residential development, all mixed together on any given block within the city (not just single-family homes). Only later on, especially during the housing boom after World War II, did zoning of specific districts for single-family use become commonplace across the country.

The expansion of cities after World War II meant that more and more land in metropolitan areas became devoted to single-family housing through zoning. In conjunction with this expansion came other federal policies that impacted the ability to purchase a home. Redlining (the practice of rating the financial risk to government of supporting mortgage loans in a particular area of a city) has been shown to have adversely impacted communities of color and low income.2 In combination with single-family zoning, cities mixed fewer housing types together and built fewer varieties of housing, such as duplexes, triplexes, townhouses, and small apartments. The single-family house became the residential bookend at one end of the spectrum, and the large apartment complex became the bookend at the other end of the spectrum, with very few other varieties of housing, which had been traditionally built in cities, in between.

It has been suggested that, based on the historic application of zoning as a tool for economic and racial segregation, one simple route forward would be the elimination of zoning across the country.3 However, this option would likely result in “throwing the baby out with the bathwater”—a situation where communities with no zoning controls once again suffer significant challenges to the public health, safety, and welfare that zoning is intended to protect against. This change would likely mean the return of more complex private deed restrictions, effectively privatizing zoning and giving property owners (especially those with means) the upper hand in controlling land use. It would also make land-use regulations far less transparent to the general public and harder to evaluate comprehensively for planning purposes.

II. Recent Government Efforts at Improving Equity

State and local governments have initiated a variety of efforts, since the start of the twenty-first century, to reduce the adverse impacts of purely single-family zoning districts. Some that have received the most press include the following:

  • Oregon’s House Bill 2001, which passed in June 2019 and requires cities with at least 10,000 residents to allow the development of duplexes in single-family districts, while cities with over 25,000 residents must allow triplexes, fourplexes, cottage clusters, and townhouses, as well as duplexes, in single-family districts.4
  • California’s Senate Bill 9, which passed in September 2021 and requires cities to allow for the development of up to four residential units on existing lots zoned for single-family use (through a lot split and the allowance of two units on each of the two new lots).
  • “Minneapolis 2040,” a new comprehensive plan that the Minneapolis City Council adopted in December 2018, which recommended ending single-family zoning throughout the city by allowing duplexes and triplexes in every single-family zoning district.5

While we have yet to see the full impact of these new tools, they are, at minimum, changing expectations of what is allowed in a “neighborhood” to include building traditions that would house more people in cities in a more equitable manner.

III. A Charlottesville, Virginia Case Study6

A. Background

Charlottesville, Virginia, is situated in Albemarle County and the home of the University of Virginia (UVA), a public university founded in 1819 by Thomas Jefferson. In combination with Monticello, Jefferson’s home, UVA is designated as a United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage Site, one of only twenty-two nationally. With a 2020 population of almost 47,000, Charlottesville is the sixth largest city in Virginia and consists of approximately ten square miles of land area. Over twenty-three percent of the city’s population lived below the poverty line in 2020.7

According to a recent analysis in the city’s 2021 Comprehensive Plan,8 seventy-five percent of the city’s land area is zoned for residential use, with seventy percent of that land located in single-family zoning districts. The plan also clarified that there are over 2,700 renter households in Charlottesville that pay more than half of their income on rent and utilities, with the majority of these households earning less than $35,000 a year. Finally, the city’s own 2018 Housing Needs Assessment identified that the city’s affordable housing need was 3,318 units in 2017.9 This figure includes cost-burdened renter households spending more than thirty percent of their income for housing, the replacement of existing assisted-housing units in poor condition, and housing needed to accommodate homeless individuals and families. These facts, in addition to the testimony of the city’s own residents about their access to housing at a reasonable cost, drove the policy-making in the 2021 Comprehensive Plan.

Key to the update of the Comprehensive Plan was a focus on housing affordability and land-use equity—creating a balanced approach to land use that would somehow begin to inject enhanced equity and start to heal rifts in the community related to race and income inequality.

B. Future Land Use Categories and Map

In late 2019, a consultant team consisting of four firms (RHI—team lead responsible for comprehensive planning; Brick & Story— responsible for community engagement; HR&A—responsible for housing and economic analysis; and Code Studio—responsible for drafting zoning) began work supporting the city on a multi-year process to update Charlottesville’s existing comprehensive plan and then update and align the city’s zoning with the plan. While the pandemic impacted the availability of in-person engagement and interaction, the team quickly pivoted to a digital engagement model and began their work.

The City of Charlottesville Future Land Use Map was one of the most important tools for exploring a more equitable approach to land use in Charlottesville. The question to be answered was, “How could Charlottesville reduce or remove traditional economic and zoning barriers to allow all residents the opportunity to live in any part of the city at a price they could afford?” The most straightforward solution was to allow multiple residential units on properties currently zoned for only one residential unit. This option would theoretically reduce the cost of a new residential unit by sharing the land cost with existing units and would also potentially create smaller units that would likely be more affordable than the original house. The initial draft comprehensive-plan materials, including the future land use map, were made available to the public in May and June 2021, and the debate began in earnest. Often, the creation of a map implementing proposed written policies helps the community understand the on-the-ground implications of those policies. In the case of Charlottesville, the majority of the discussion focused on two mapped future land use categories: General Residential and Medium Intensity Residential. See Figure 1.

Figure 1. Charlottesville Future Land Use Map, adopted November 15, 2021.

1. General Residential Category

Following conceptual models from other communities, the city proposed a Future Land Use Category called “General Residential” that would encompass all land currently zoned for one single-family unit per lot. The description of the Future Land Use Category proposed to “upzone”10 all of the city’s single-family residential zones to allow for additional units on every lot.11 In Charlottesville’s case, three units would be allowed per lot (created by splitting up the existing home or by building new units attached to the main structure or detached and located elsewhere on the lot). See Figure 2. The desire to maintain the current residential character of neighborhoods, as viewed from the street, led to a proposal to offer an incentive to keep the existing house through a density bonus of one additional unit (for a total of four units on the lot) if the existing house was retained (and, if necessary, renovated). The height of buildings in this land-use category would be capped at 2.5 stories (two full stories, with a third half-story allowed only in a pitched roof form) to maintain consistency with the surrounding homes.

It is hoped that implementation of this Future Land Use Category will create more flexibility for people to move closer to schools or a job, provide a way for aging residents to downsize without leaving their neighborhoods, and help stem the displacement of lower-income residents, especially in areas near downtown.

Figure 2. Sample illustration of potential options for up to four residential units on a single lot (prepared by Code Studio for the City of Concord, NH).

2. General Residential (Sensitive Community Areas)

Some portions of Charlottesville have been designated as Sensitive Community Areas.12 These areas are typically older portions of the community near the downtown, located within the General Residential Future Land Use Category. They are generally lower income neighborhoods with historic African American populations that, due to modest investment in housing, are targets for displacement if the General Residential concepts are applied without additional protection for existing populations. For this reason, a new future land-use category was created that is intended to provide additional protections against displacement in this area. The struggle for policymakers is that additional development and public improvements in this area are likely to exacerbate the rate of displacement of current residents. This issue must be balanced with the right of existing property owners to gain additional value in their home as surrounding property values rise. Some longtime owners may prefer to “cash out,” rather than face the additional cost of property taxes that will rise as the general value of the neighborhood increases due to new residential options that the new zoning would allow. The city’s work on tools to implement this concept continues as of this writing.

3. Medium Intensity Residential Category

The second key Future Land Use Category is called “Medium Intensity Residential.” This category is intended for identified corridors and nodes that are appropriate to remain dominantly residential in character but that should be allowed to house more people based on a series of factors, such as availability of transit, access to parks or other public facilities, and access to employment. The Medium Intensity Residential Category allows up to twelve units per lot, including townhouses and small apartment buildings, at a height of up to four stories. Building width facing the street would be limited to ease the transition of these newly designated areas to existing neighborhoods and reduce the visual impact of new residential buildings.

Medium Intensity Residential was mapped along key transit corridors, near major employment centers, at nodes where major streets cross, and near parks and open spaces to increase access to and provide support for these key facilities. It is hoped that implementation of this Future Land Use Category will create more flexibility for people to access public transportation and public amenities, such as parks and small retail establishments, on foot or by bicycle from their homes.

4. Parcel-Level Land-Use Map

The city made one final key decision—the Future Land-Use Map would be legible down to the parcel level. This meant that every lot would have a clear future land-use category designation. It is common for communities to adopt a generalized future land-use map that is interpreted at the time of application of specific implementing zoning districts. It was important in Charlottesville to create certainty for property owners through a strong linkage between the Future Land-Use Map and any future zoning map. There would be no need to interpret which land-use category might be applied to a parcel based on a future land-use plan map with fat marker lines; nodes, indicated by circles, stars, or asterisks, that did not match underlying lots; or large blobs of color that blended artfully into an adjacent color, with no clear definition at the lot level, as is common in the future land-use maps of other communities. The reason for this choice was to ensure that conversations about land-use equity happened at the planning or conceptual level, with those concepts applied very clearly to specific lots across the community. In the future, where changes to zoning boundaries that do not match the Future Land-Use Map are desired, the city must modify the Future Land-Use Map first, setting the policy framework in place prior to the application of a new zoning district.

The 2021 Comprehensive Plan (including its Future Land-Use Categories and Future Land-Use Map) was adopted by Charlottesville’s City Council on November 15, 2021. A complete record of this process is included on the city’s website. The next step is to implement the plan through the preparation and adoption of a new zoning ordinance and accompanying zoning map.

C. The New Zoning

Once revisions to the comprehensive plan were adopted in November 2021, the city and its consultant team turned to the task of preparing a new zoning ordinance that implements the plan’s goals and policies.

1. Zoning Diagnostic + Approach Report

The city and its consultants initially prepared a “Zoning Diagnostic + Approach” report that was released in June 2022.13 The report reviewed the city’s existing zoning for its ability to implement the comprehensive plan’s goals and policies, including, specifically, the Future Land-Use Categories and Map. In preparing the report, the team reviewed both existing regulations and national best practices for application in Charlottesville.

One of the most important visualization tools for testing potential zoning options is 3D modelling. The team prepared a series of models for the General Residential Future Land Use Category reflecting small, medium, and large residential lots and the options available to develop additional residential units. The report identified the existing neighborhoods that the lots represented. See Figure 3 for an example of this modelling. These models prove the viability of residential options that could be used to implement the General Residential category through new zoning.

Figure 3. Sample modelling of residential options.

The Zoning Diagnostic + Approach report findings were reviewed in a joint meeting of the City of Charlottesville Planning Commission and City Council in September 2022, and following a robust discussion of the report, permission was given to the team to begin drafting the new zoning.

2. General Residential Zoning

It is anticipated that one new zoning district will replace all existing single-family zoning districts included in the General Residential Future Land-Use Category. This zoning district would include only one minimum lot size (currently proposed as 6,000 square feet) across the entire city for the purpose of subdivision based on a typical lot in the more urban portion of the community. This lot size will replace the current requirement for 8,125 square foot lots in the R-1 and R-1U zoning districts. This means that existing large residential lots would become eligible for subdivsion into two, three, or more lots, each receiving the new allocation of development rights (three new units), thereby reducing land cost per unit even further, and multiplying the opportunities for new development in areas with large lot-size minimums. To be clear, property owners are not required to develop their lot with new units but will have new options to do so if they choose to sell a portion or all of their lot or develop their existing lots further.14

3. Medium Intensity Residential

In considering the Medium Intensity Residential Future Land-Use Category, a determination was made to provide two districts—varying principally in the total height allowed—to implement a corridor concept. Medium-intensity residential districts immediately abutting the General Residential category could allow a maximum height of two and a half stories to match the adjacent neighborhoods while allowing a total of eight units (and an affordable housing bonus of twelve total units and three full stories). At nodes where two major corridors meet, or adjacent to public amenities such as parks, a maximum height of three stories and twelve units (and an affordable housing bonus of sixteen total units and four stories) is proposed for medium-intensity residential districts.

4. Expanding Access to Goods and Services

In addition, in recognition that many residential areas do not have any services or retail located within walking distance, the two new medium-intensity residential zoning districts are proposed to allow corner stores at key intersections and potentially “shopfront houses,” which are existing homes with an addition located towards the street to accommodate a commercial establishment facing the corridor. These two permitted uses will allow expanded home occupations, small offices, services such as a barbershop, and small retail shops, expanding access to neighborhoods with limited access to goods and services today.

Figure 4. Typical shopfront houses in Rochester, New York.

5. The “Affordable Housing” Overlay Concept

As the Future Land-Use Categories and Future Land-Use Map made their way through the public review process, a group of affordable housing developers15 began the discussion of using an “affordable housing overlay” zoning district on a citywide basis. This conversation was likely based on a similar “100% Affordable Housing Zoning Overlay” adopted in the City of Cambridge, Massachusetts, in October 2020.16 The Cambridge ordinance allows four-story apartments to be built anywhere in the city (and seven stories along key commercial corridors), including in districts that ban apartments in the underlying zoning, provided the units are all affordable to renters earning no more than one hundred percent of area median income (AMI). In addition, at the time of initial rental of the units, eighty percent of the units must be rented to owners earning no more than eighty percent AMI. Charlottesville’s affordable housing developers initially proposed a similar overlay across the entire city. The affordable housing overlay concept sparked a substantial amount of interest in the community, and the comprehensive plan recommends further studying the idea.

At the time of this article’s writing, it is anticipated that Charlottesville’s new zoning will allow eight residential units on any existing single-family lot in the General Residential Future Land-Use Category, provided that all of the units are affordable at fifty to sixty percent AMI.17 Medium-intensity residential districts will provide an incentive for up to sixteen units per lot, up from a base allocation of twelve units per lot, with similar income restrictions. In addition, Charlottesville intends to adopt inclusionary zoning requirements for all larger multi-family developments in the city requiring a specific amount of every such project to be affordable.

IV. Conclusion

There are ways to change zoning from being an exclusionary tool to one that produces opportunity for more inclusion, housing variety, homeownership, and affordable housing. Many communities have begun the journey down this path, and all of us that work with cities should follow this trend carefully to identify the most successful tools. Charlottesville, Virginia, is one city that has made a major commitment to improving their land-use equity through thoughtful comprehensive planning and improved zoning (with additional support from a variety of other tools, including locally funding affordable housing). The author is proud of the city’s residents and leadership for their consistent support of these new concepts and hopes this article contributes to a continuing discussion of opportunities for improved land-use equity across the country.


1. Herbert Hoover, Forward to U.S. Dep’t of Com., Advisory Comm. on Zoning, A Standard State Zoning Enabling Act Under Which Municipalities May Adopt Zoning Regulations (rev. ed. 1926).

2. See Richard Rothstein, The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America (2017), for an in-depth discussion of the impact of redlining.

3. See, e.g., M. Nolan Gray, Arbitrary Lines: How Zoning Broke the American City and How to Fix It (2022).

4. Elliot Njus, Bill to Eliminate Single-Family Zoning in Oregon Neighborhoods Passes Final Legislative Hurdle, The Oregonian (June 30, 2019),

5. Henry Grabar, Minneapolis Confronts Its History of Housing Segregation, Slate Mag. (Dec. 7, 2018),

6. At the time this article was written, the author was involved in the preparation of Charlottesville’s new comprehensive plan and zoning ordinance. In a joint workshop on September 27, 2022, the zoning concepts described in this case study were presented to the City of Charlottesville Planning Commission and City Council, which generally agreed to these concepts for the purpose of drafting the city’s new zoning ordinance. While the comprehensive plan was adopted at the end of 2021, the new zoning ordinance has not yet been adopted, and the policy and specifics of the ordinance may change prior to adoption in late 2023.

7. QuickFacts Charlottesville, Virginia, U.S. Census Bureau, (last visited Nov. 12, 2022).

8. City of Charlottesville, Cville Plans Together Charlottesville Comprehensive Plan 16 (2021),

9. Id. at 17 (citing FBCI & PES, Housing Needs Assessment Socioeconomic and Housing Market Analysis (2018),

10. “Upzone” is a term typically used to describe increasing the density or intensity of a zoning district.

11. The General Residential Future Land Use Category was described in the 2021 Comprehensive Plan as “Up to 3-unit dwellings including existing single-family splits, accessory dwelling units (ADUs), and new housing infill. Zoning ordinances will consider ways to support townhomes in this category on a site-specific basis. Allow up to 4-unit dwellings if the existing structure is maintained. Allow additional units and height under an affordability bonus program or other zoning mechanism.” Id. at 29.

12. The General Residential (Sensitive Community Areas) Future Land Use Category was described in the comprehensive plan as areas that “[a]llow for additional housing choice, and tools to mitigate displacement, within existing residential neighborhoods that have high proportions of populations that may be sensitive to displacement pressures.” Id. at 29.

13. The full report can be found at CVILLE PLANS TOGETHER, (last visited Jan. 11, 2023).

14. Note that, in some cases, existing lots may not be able to use the newly allocated rights due to deed restrictions.

15. Sunshine Mathon, Executive Director of the Piedmont Housing Alliance, and Dan Rosensweig, President and CEO of Habitat for Humanity of Greater Charlottesville, are the principal authors of this proposed approach.

16. For additional information, see 100%-Affordable Housing Zoning Overlay, Cambridge CDD@344, (last visited Nov. 12, 2020.

17. This proposed zoning option, including the proposed depth of affordability, remains under analysis by the City.

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Lee Einsweiler

Lee Einsweiler is one of the founders of Code Studio, a planning consulting firm in Austin, Texas, with specific expertise in the preparation of new zoning.