The Zoning Justice Project

Protecting the Freedom to Use Property

The Institute for Justice’s Zoning Justice Project aims to protect and promote the freedom to use property. For more than a century, the freedom to use property has been eroded through abusive zoning practices that disregard individual liberty and emphasize top-down planning over property rights. Those property rights have been further denigrated by the courts, where property owners have found little comfort from all but the most abusive zoning practices.

It was not always this way. Indeed, modern zoning has strayed far—even from its questionable origins. And that departure has led to innumerable social and economic consequences. Zoning, for example, acts as a massive barrier to new housing development. And that housing shortage has led directly to America’s current affordability crisis: rents are skyrocketing, and home ownership is increasingly unattainable for most average earners. Likewise, small-business owners must deal with zoning restrictions of their own, making it harder for entrepreneurs to start businesses in their homes, near competitors, or start a venture—even a non-profit—that does not fit neatly into an existing zoning category. The result is that it has grown needlessly difficult to open a business or operate a charity.

All of this makes our society less free and less prosperous. And it makes no sense. Prohibiting people from building housing or starting businesses—simply because the government believes they do not belong—is counterproductive and benefits no one. That is because it does not actually accomplish anything legitimate. Instead, it simply prevents builders, entrepreneurs, and volunteers from using their property, peacefully and productively, to benefit themselves and their communities.

Identifying these problems are the beginning. IJ’s Zoning Justice Project offers solutions.

Our Surroundings Are A Reflection of Zoning.
So Are Our Problems. 

Zoning sounds simple enough. On paper, it is a patchwork of sectors, gridlines, and overlays that are meant to “plan” how our communities operate and grow. But it is not as intentional—or nearly as intelligent—as it sounds. It is, to the contrary, a government-created system of arbitrary boundaries that determines where and how individuals may use their property. And it invisibly governs, in granular detail, virtually every aspect of our day-to-day lives.

Indeed, for those living in a zoned locale—which is most of America—your residence is located in an area that the government has zoned for residential use; your occupation is performed in an area the government has zoned for that type of work; and you shop, dine, and recreate in an area that the government has deemed suitable for those uses. In other words, zoning is a government-crafted plan under which you live where the government says you can live, work where it says you can work, and play where it says you can play. And for those who own property, that means you can only use it how government says you can use it.

How Zoning Dictates Where You Live, Work, and Play

Zoning is a government-created system of arbitrary boundaries that determines where and how individuals may use their property. And it invisibly governs, in granular detail, virtually every aspect of our day-to-day lives. But long before there was zoning, America was founded on a basic idea—that all people have an inalienable natural right to “life, liberty, and property.”
Where did we go wrong?

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ZOning Justice issue areas

Housing Abundance and Affordability 

Everyone wants to live somewhere safe, convenient, and affordable. But those things mean different things to different people. So the marketplace of housing supply, in any given place, should be left to allow for an array of housing options that will meet the diverse needs of its populace. That means residences of different sizes and types, at different price points, that will together accommodate everyone’s needs.

Small and Home-Based Business

Zoning laws create several related barriers to entry for entrepreneurs. In the most common instance, zoning laws prohibit otherwise legal businesses from opening—or staying open—in the proprietor’s desired location. Relatedly, an existing business might wish to provide an accompanying service or product, only to be told that the existing use classification does not allow that. And finally, some entrepreneurs have business ideas that are so innovative they simply cannot be forced into an existing zoning box—and therefore, in the eyes of many planners and bureaucrats, are simply illegal.

Private Solutions to Public Problems

Human kindness should not be illegal. And yet much of America’s zoning apparatus treats it that way, sectioning off where and how humans can offer their properties to those in need. But by doing that, government confiscates from private actors the ability to humanely offer their property—be it food or shelter—to those who need it most. This leaves major public and social problems unaddressed by those in the private sector who are best suited to address them. And what is worse, it creates a belief on the part of the public that these issues can and must be cured by government and government alone.

How IJ Is Fighting Back

IJ’s Zoning Justice Project exists to combat the derision of property rights that is built into the concept of restrictive zoning regulations. In place of this unchecked abuse, IJ will offer the courts and the public an understanding of land use that is respectful of both property rights and mindful of legitimate public needs.

That means that local governments, for example, cannot stifle much-needed affordable housing projects by doing things like imposing arbitrary minimum-square footage requirements or abusive impact fees. Nor can it restrict small home-based businesses that are utterly harmless, prohibit charities and shelters, or criminalize human kindness.

Strategic Litigation

People have the constitutional right to use their property, peacefully and productively. And when those rights are violated, the most direct forum for vindicating those rights is the courts. Through its Zoning Justice Project, IJ will file cases in state and federal court, seeking precedent-setting decisions that will further enable all Americans to enjoy the right to use their property without the arbitrary interference of government.

Legislative Efforts

In addition to strategic litigation, IJ will also promote sensible legislative reform at the state and local level, as well as educate the public on the importance of injecting property-rights focused considerations into the zoning discussion.

Education & Advocacy

Sometimes the most sensible way to prevent unconstitutional policies from taking root is to explain why they are bad ideas to begin with. And where they already exist, to shine a light on local governments who fail to take action to change them or, even worse, wield those powers abusively. Through the media and direct outreach, IJ’s Zoning Justice Project will educate the public about the problems caused by zoning and, likewise, will call attention to its worst abuses nationwide.

Through this multi-faceted approach, IJ’s Zoning Justice Project will protect and promote the freedom not just to possess property, but as the Founders intended, to use it peacefully and productively as well.

Project Contacts

Ari Bargil
Senior Attorney
Andrew Wimer
Director of Media Relations

Zoning Justice Cases

zoning justice legislation

Housing Opportunities Made Easier (HOME) Act

The housing shortage is problem that can be significantly solved with one change. Scholars, state legislators and municipal officials from different backgrounds agree that a crucial component to increasing supply is to reform zoning laws.

zoning justice amicus brief

Montanans Against Irresponsible Densification, LLC (MAID) v. State of Montana 

In late 2023, faced with a substantial housing shortage, Montana passed some of the most sweeping housing reforms in America. But it was quickly sued by an anti-housing organization that claims, among other things, that existing property owners actually possess a constitutional right to zoning classifications that make it harder for others to use their own properties to create housing.  

The trial court accepted the Plaintiffs arguments and enjoined the reform, preventing it from taking effect. The trial court’s decision is on appeal to the Montana Supreme Court.  

After being in business for 30 years, the city of Dallas told Hinga Mbogo he had to shut down his mechanic shop because the city had changed the zoning. Hinga partnered with IJ and stood up for his rights.

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