Late last month a Tennessee state commission found zoning, particularly single-family zoning, was one of the driving factors behind the state’s affordable housing crisis. The findings mirror a growing trend across the country: officials have finally realized that overly restrictive zoning is problematic.  

For more than 100 years municipalities have enacted increasingly strict and arbitrary rules to control where homes are built. Zoning was supposedly meant to help protect residents by restricting what could be built next to them, particularly in residential areas. But as officials are starting to learn, zoning has helped create a severe housing shortage, causing home prices to skyrocket. It has also been weaponized by local officials to punish critics or hurt well-meaning Americans who were trying to use their land to solve public problems. Now, jurisdictions are rolling back zoning regulations. 

Today, as much as 75% of land that is zoned for housing in American cities is set aside for single-family zoning, one of the most restrictive types of zoning. While only 40 of the 95 counties in Tennessee had zoning in 2020, the Tennessee state commission said that among the six counties it studied, larger multi-family housing like triplexes isn’t allowed on more than 94% of the land. In fact, in one of the counties, 82% of the land is zoned for single-family homes only. 

When comparing counties with zoning to those without it, the commission found the presence of zoning was associated with a lower rate of available housing, thereby exacerbating housing affordability dilemma. And that finding is consistent with a broader national trend: the more restrictive the zoning, the greater the cost of housing. To combat this problem, the commission looked to other U.S. locales that have already started to tackle the affordable housing shortage wrought by their own overly restrictive zoning laws. Based on those findings, it recommended lawmakers enact legislation that incentivizes local governments to adopt zoning reforms—a strategy the commission said other states such as Montana have adopted in the past. 

Local, state, and even federal lawmakers have started loosening or ending restrictive zoning practices altogether in recent years. Montana, Oregon, California, Washington, and Maine have ended single-family zoning. Most recently, Arizona enacted two laws—one that gives homeowners in certain cities the right to build multiple accessory dwelling units on their properties and another that requires cities of 75,000 or more to allow builders to build duplexes, triplexes, and townhomes in portions of new single-family zoning. 

Housing has become unaffordable for too many Americans. Reforming zoning, particularly single-family zoning, will not only help address housing affordability; it will also restore Americans’ right to use their properties as they see fit. Nationwide, arbitrary zoning requirements have stopped Americans from finding private solutions to local affordable housing crises, opening and operating home businesses, or using their land to help others or their community. Prohibiting all these uses simply because the government doesn’t believe they belong in a certain area is both counterproductive and illogical. 

Zoning has wreaked havoc on housing in America. Its deprived people of their right to use their land as they see fit, punished well-meaning individuals, and driven a core part of the American Dream—owning a home—out of reach for far too many. Everyone wants to live somewhere safe, convenient, and affordable; overly restrictive zoning shouldn’t get in the way of that. At IJ, we’re working to fix that through our new Zoning Justice Project, and luckily, it seems some local, state, and federal leaders are finally joining in on that fight.

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The Institute for Justice is a nonprofit, nonpartisan, public interest law firm. Our mission is to end widespread abuses of government power and secure the constitutional rights that allow all Americans to pursue their dreams. IJ has represented individuals who faced retaliatory code enforcement for public comments they made, were forced into homelessness because a city refused to let someone live in a tiny home on private property, and were subjected to ridiculous zoning demands just to open a business. If you feel the government has abused your constitutional rights, tell us about your case. Visit

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