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A zoning and land use call to action

While responding to today’s shortage of affordable housing is a multifaceted challenge, more and more communities are reconsidering their land use and development policies with an eye on boosting housing supply.


Awareness of the relationship between policies like zoning and rising housing cost is spreading everywhere: The Biden Administration is attempting to incentivize communities to change course on land use policies that limit housing. Industry groups representing multifamily and single family developers have released report after report concerning the financial cost of regulation. The American Planning Association has proposed reforms to make zoning more equitable. Politically diverse leaders in states like Virginia and New York have proposed comprehensive reform.  


Today’s zoning codes and approval processes can be a significant barrier to building new housing – and in the case of affordable housing, block it from being built altogether. In 2021, the Iowa Finance Authority announced a Welcome Home Iowa campaign in part to raise awareness of how many housing projects are altered or canceled – often as they pass through zoning or related approval processes.


What’s more, a new report by the Urban Institute has found that local boards and commissions tasked with overseeing zoning and land use decisions often lack representation among certain groups. These include women, Hispanic people, renters, and workers in occupations that struggle to afford the place they live based on the wages they earn -- like food, health care, and retail workers. Perhaps it should not surprise us, then, that many people in these same groups are among those facing a tougher challenge finding affordable housing in our communities.


In Greater Des Moines, communities are beginning to take action to address these challenges. A new wave of comprehensive plans being approved in communities across the region calls for ensuring diverse housing types at a variety of price points.  Communities are embracing strategies to support diverse housing types that used to be plentiful – but are no longer – such as missing middle housing, a major topic of this year’s Affordable Housing Week Symposium.


But real change will only come in the form of a consistent shift in these often complicated policies, and it will take all of us working together, as community members and housing stakeholders, to address the challenges our communities face.


As is often said, in our community, “we may not have mountains or an ocean,” but our region’s reputation as “a good place to raise a family” has long rested, in part, on housing choice and opportunity being widely available. Read on to discover actions communities can take – and are taking – to keep this promise for every person and family calling Central Iowa home.

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