Zoned Out: How Oklahoma Zoning Laws Contribute to the Housing Crisis

Wednesday, 01 May 2024 15:05

Zoned Out: How Oklahoma Zoning Laws Contribute to the Housing Crisis Featured

Written by Heather Warlick, OklahomaWatch
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The American dream of owning a home with a fenced-in backyard for 2.5 children and a dog to play in is out of reach for many of Oklahoma’s lowest-income families. 

Oklahoma needs more than 77,000 affordable units to meet the demand of low and extremely low-income residents, those Oklahomans who earn as little as 30% of the area median income. 

The average yearly earnings for Oklahoma’s extremely low-income families is $27,750. To afford a market-value two-bedroom rental in Oklahoma, without being cost-burdened, a household needs to earn $37,436 per year or $18 per hour. Property managers and mortgage brokers consider individuals to be cost-burdened if they spend more than 30% of their incomes on housing costs. 

About 30% of Oklahoma’s essential workers earn less than $18 per hour, including restaurant workers, teaching assistants and health care providers. 

Without housing that fits their budgets, cost-burdened Oklahoma families often sacrifice health care, nutrition and other necessities to keep a roof over their heads.

Zoning policies are a significant contributor to the problem, said Sabine Brown, Senior Policy Analyst of Infrastructure and Access at Oklahoma Policy Institute. 

In Oklahoma, restrictive zoning ordinances in three of the largest cities are obstacles to housing the state’s lowest-income families. 

Residential land is disproportionately skewed toward single-family zoning, particularly in Norman, Oklahoma City and Tulsa. In Norman, 98% of residential land is zoned for single-family homes; in Oklahoma City, 96% and in Tulsa, 81% of residential land is zoned exclusively for single-family dwellings. 

The state has space to accommodate the thousands of families that need affordable housing. Oklahoma City is the sixth fastest-growing city in the country, according to the 2023 U.S. Census, and it is the 20th most populous city in the United States. 

The National Low Income Housing Coalition estimated that Oklahoma has more than 133,000 extremely low-income households but only 55,700 affordable, available rental homes.  That’s about 42 affordable options for every 100 extremely low-income families. 

Some of those families have homes they can afford, but many live in homes that cost more than half their incomes. Skyrocketing rental prices have outpaced paychecks, as the state holds the minimum wage at $7.25 per hour.

With many states facing the same housing problems as Oklahoma, some are re-examining the zoning policies that affect where affordable homes can be built. 

 

Rethinking Zoning Laws

In 2021, Norman changed zoning laws that previously required businesses to provide large parking lots for their patrons. The city now suggests the number of parking spaces a business should provide, instead of mandating them. The plan aims to encourage businesses to share parking areas, allowing more residential growth in urban core areas. 

A proposal allowing people to build accessory dwelling units, or granny flats, will be brought to Oklahoma City's planning commission and city council in late spring or summer. Accessory dwellings allow homeowners to add additional housing to their property to use as rentals or for family members to reside in, which can help alleviate the lack of affordable and available housing units. 

Reconsidering single-family zoning, easing parking requirements and allowing accessory dwelling units are ingredients of creating a more accessible landscape for potential home buyers, renters and developers. 

In Oklahoma City and Tulsa, infill overlay districts have been implemented to allow some exceptions in single-family zones. These districts are typically in urban areas where, for example, a large, older home may be renovated to a multiplex. Another possibility is approval to build a multiplex unit where an empty lot is available.

“As we do with new zoning, tools like this overlay are the very beginning,” said Tulsa Housing Policy Director Travis Hulse. “We kind of said, ‘Look, we've got to try something. We've got to see if this works and evaluate it and monitor it. If it doesn't, then we're going to continue to try to do something to evolve and adapt.’”

 

Finding the Missing Middle 

Oklahomans need homes of nearly all sizes for purchase and for rent, but particularly dwellings priced between $50,000 and $300,000. That range could include tiny homes, granny flats, townhomes, duplexes and other multiplexes, which have become known as the missing middle

They’re missing because for decades, homes that differed from the single-family home mold were excluded, essentially outlawed, from large swaths of city residential zones. Middle refers to the price range and density those multiplexes are known for. 

“It’s an affordability thing for some people,” Hulse said.

Other people may be looking to downsize from their family homes into apartments, or smaller units within people’s home neighborhoods, he said.  When moderately sized homes, both for rent and purchase, are few and far between, competition drives up prices and makes finding affordable units even more difficult for low-income families.

An influx of new residents and businesses have come to Oklahoma, but housing inventory hasn’t kept up with demand. 

“I feel like, in years past, there was a lot more speculative development,” Hulse said.

That speculative development allowed the market to be more flexible and to react to changes and shifts in the economy. 

“That doesn’t happen as much anymore,” Hulse said.

 

Exclusionary Zones Hinder Progress

Single-family zoning is known as exclusionary zoning since it has been used for decades to draw boundaries between areas where affluent families can reside and where lower-income families generally reside. 

Zoning laws are considered a form of racial and class segregation by some. 

Research from the Urban Institute concluded that single-family zoned neighborhoods tend to be owner-occupied by moderate-to-high-income white families. Multifamily-zoned areas tend toward more racially diverse renters with lower incomes. 

“As used in Oklahoma cities, (single-family zoning) hinders the state’s ability to close the affordable housing gap,” Brown asserted in an Oklahoma Policy Institute article examining the three cities’ high percentages of single-family-zoned residential land. 

If the state has enough homes for its growing population, market competition could drive rent prices down, easing the financial burden of Oklahoma renters. 

Home prices could become more competitive, as well, allowing families to buy homes, rather than renting, which would free up rental units.  

Eased restrictions on building in Oklahoma’s largest cities could also encourage developers to build more housing units. 

“On top of zoning making it hard to build affordable housing, developers need financial assistance to keep housing costs affordable for the lower-income households,” Brown wrote.

 

Investing in Affordability 

Several Oklahoma programs offer builders incentives to develop affordable housing for low-income families along with help for buyers. 

Last session, legislators invested $215 million in creating the Oklahoma Housing Stability Program, targeted at workforce housing.

While Tulsa and Oklahoma City plan to reinvest $125.5 million in taxpayer money the cities have been awarded for housing, some zoning changes may be on the horizon. 

Tulsa will receive $75 million in 2025 from the city’s Improve Our Tulsa capital initiative and MAPS 4 will provide Oklahoma City $55.5 million to be administered by the Oklahoma City Housing Authority. 

Oklahoma cities are trying to ease the state’s housing shortage but experts agree it is a complicated issue. 

“We’re so far from having enough units for people,” said Sen. Julia Kirt, D-Oklahoma City.

“And we have so many different levels of government and of change that needs to happen to get where we need to be. So, yeah, we do need every change we can get.”

It’s not enough to eliminate single-family zoning if other elements that ease restrictions aren’t also implemented, according to the Urban Institute.

A multifaceted approach for zoning reform that combines easing single-family housing restrictions with other zoning alterations works better to bring about more new and renovated affordable housing units.

California, Oregon, and Washington have banned single-family zoning, though experts are still analyzing the effect the changed zoning laws have had on societal issues such as racial inequities. 

More upward mobility is linked to areas zoned for single-family dwellings; the hope for many is that inclusionary zoning will result in more diverse neighborhoods where families of varied income levels have equal access to education, healthy food and mass transportation.

 

Modeling Successful Change

In 2019, Minneapolis began updating its zoning laws, starting with ending single-family zoning citywide; the city began allowing duplexes and triplexes in areas previously reserved for individual homes. The change was less impactful to the housing landscape as was hoped, but the number of permits for multiplexes doubled during the next three years.

That city saw more dramatic increases in its affordable housing inventory with a combined approach of eliminating single-family zoning, eliminating parking requirements and by legalizing accessory dwelling units in 2015, as Oklahoma City is poised to do. 

With its combined zoning changes, Minnesota’s affordable housing units doubled between 2015 and 2020. More than 90% of new units were in large buildings with at least 10 units.

Yes In My Backyard groups, known as YIMBY, frame the benefits for loosening restrictive zoning ordinances as gateways to creating more available, affordable housing, increasing neighborhood densities and integrating more walkable access to shopping, dining and amenities.

Proponents also cite decreased school segregation and climate change benefits as reasons to rethink exclusionary zoning, which can include lot and home size requirements, height minimums and limits. 

The same groups point to pro-business aspects of lowering thresholds for property owners, emphasizing building and investment opportunities for home developers and businesses that cater to these neighborhoods. 

 

A Growing Problem

The problem of not enough affordable housing didn’t just appear, said Oklahoma City Planning Director Geoff Butler. It's been around for decades.

“Yes, it was worsened by the pandemic,” Butler said. “There are a lot of factors involved, but certainly the economic disruptions are a big part of it.”

As interest rates for home purchases rise, people tend to put off moving. This slows developers from building, as they tend away from speculative development to instead building homes as they are sold. 

Along with Oklahoma City’s proposed accessory dwelling ordinance, Butler said a comprehensive update to the city’s urban core zoning codes is in the works. 

The city is getting bigger, he said. An increase in the population can equate to an increase in people experiencing homelessness. Several scenarios contribute to that: Landlords may evict tenants to renovate for higher-paying renters, people entering the state who can’t find affordable housing may be relegated to living in their cars or encampments and more demand for rental housing can induce price gouging on the part of property managers, pricing low-income families out of the market. 

“That's one of the reasons why we're looking at revisiting our zoning code,” Butler said. “You know, we have a low cost of living. It’s not necessarily that we’re having the same problems that you would see in a coastal city, for example. The fact is, we have our fair share of low- to moderate-income people in the city and they need housing. And regardless of the fact that our housing is more affordable than other cities, it’s still not affordable to them.”

 

Oklahoma Watch, at oklahomawatch.org, is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that covers public-policy issues facing the state.

Heather Warlick is a reporter covering evictions, housing and homelessness. Contact her at (405) 226-1915 or hwarlick@oklahomawatch.org.

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