Intrusive zoning laws are some of the biggest obstacles to creating affordable homes. Zoning regulates even the minutest detail of our lives and can be the difference between having a home of your own and becoming homeless.
People experiencing homelessness face a plethora of challenges. Living out on the streets comes with a high risk of assault, sexual violence, and theft. Moreover, camping out on public property is often against the law in many jurisdictions and can trigger heavy fines, even jail time. Government-run shelters provide some relief but often are insufficient—many are crowded and come with strict and intrusive rules. Some communities have no public shelters at all.
Shelters on private property provide a warm, safe, and clean option for people experiencing homelessness. Offering shelter for the most vulnerable members of society is a time-honored, traditional use of private property. Yet cities and towns across the country routinely abuse zoning laws to prevent private charities from providing shelter to those who need it the most.
Since many homeless shelters are not in residentially zoned areas, they usually need a “conditional-use permit” to comply with the law. A conditional-use permit grants authority to use land in a particular way but typically requires a public hearing, where neighbors are invited to opine on the proposal, and a vote by local officials to allow the use. That effectively gives city councils, planning commissions, and zoning boards veto power over private property. Shelters have been denied conditional use permits for irrational and ridiculous reasons, like a perceived lack of “aesthetics” or “harmony” with neighboring property.
In a similar vein, many cities impose “minimum floor areas” that ban building single-family homes unless they exceed an arbitrary size. Those rigid zoning laws make it difficult, and sometimes impossible, for people of modest means to live in modest homes. Those requirements also needlessly prevent building “tiny homes,” which are increasingly popular with people looking for a minimalist lifestyle as well as those who want a cost-effective, quick way to provide shelter for people experiencing homelessness.
Your right to property doesn’t depend on whether you live in a castle, a cottage, or an RV. No one should be made homeless in the name of zoning.
Chasidy Decker is a native to the Boise area who wants to live in the tiny home that suits her.