Zoning laws are not glamorous. Most politically-inclined Americans focus their efforts on higher-profile issues. Zoning ordinances are enacted in town meetings and state legislatures, not Congress or the Oval Office. As a result, zoning law is painfully neglected. With so many problems competing for time, money, and attention, problematic land-use regulations are frequently overlooked. When zoning does appear in the national discourse, the impetus appears from the political right, which has characterized federal attempts at combating exclusionary zoning as a scheme to “abolish the suburbs,” an article from Vox reported.
Needless to say, zoning reform is not about abolishing the suburbs. “Zoning,” admittedly an imprecise term, refers to a set of regulations that detail legal uses for plots of land. In Williamstown, as in many towns across the country, existing zoning laws encourage building single-family homes on large lots. Often, land is zoned exclusively for single-family housing while other forms of housing are banned. These restrictions have the effect of driving up housing costs and excluding ethnic and racial minorities, as well as those with low incomes.
This status quo of exclusionary zoning does not have to continue. Rather, inclusionary zoning policy can be a powerful tool to battle economic and racial injustice in the Town, as Kate Orringer ’20 and Morgan Dauk ’20 explain in their 2020 research. Unnecessary regulations that protect single-family homes at the expense of more affordable, multi-family buildings exclude marginalized groups while simultaneously contributing to rising housing prices across Berkshire County, according to The Berkshire Eagle. Removing limits on multi-family housing can be a boon in the fight against the housing affordability crisis at a time when new housing supply is reaching record lows and housing prices are reaching new highs. In many cases, the root cause of housing crises is land-use regulations decided at the local level. By removing supply-constraining zoning restrictions, local leaders can slow — or even reverse — the rising cost of housing across the country.
Given the low salience of zoning reform and its importance to key economic issues, I was pleased to see last week’s Record article detailing the Town Planning Board’s proposed amendments to the Town’s zoning bylaws. As the article points out, most discussion of zoning reform focuses on the impact of exclusionary zoning in large cities. Indeed, zoning reform advocates focus much of their energy on metro areas like Boston, where 70 percent of municipalities have over 80 percent of their land area zoned exclusively for single-family housing, according to the Fair Housing Center of Greater Boston. Although the Town obviously differs from cities like Boston, the Planning Board has taken an important step in acknowledging the existence of exclusionary zoning in the Town and beginning to rectify its currently inadequate ordinances. In taking action to expand the Town’s housing supply, the Planning Board is making a good-faith attempt to increase economic opportunity for residents of the community. In doing so, the Town stands out as an early leader in the housing affordability crisis when other states and municipalities resist changes that would restrict single-family housing.
Williamstown may not be at the forefront of housing concerns. Its impact on the national conversation around housing affordability and exclusionary zoning is inherently limited by its size and location. However, zoning reform is one of the few issues where local pressure can achieve tangible results. The Town’s zoning ordinances are decided at the local level — the only people responsible for the state of zoning laws are our representatives in local government. As a student body, our voices can be most powerful when addressing challenges like anachronistic zoning laws. At a small liberal arts college in the rural Northeast, our ability to affect national and global problems is limited, yet it is these topics that attract our attention while less sensational but more immediate concerns like zoning reform go unnoticed. They may not spark op-eds in the Record or gatherings on the steps of Paresky, but less prominent issues matter, especially if the issue in question is one with a local tinge.
Zoning reform is a perfect example. If the Town’s proposed changes go through, the housing situation in the community will change, most likely for the better. That is worth fighting for. As students, we should not limit our attention spans to merely the issues prominent in national debate. By looking inward, we can divide our attention more equally between both local and national problems.
Justin Hartwig ’25 is from Doylestown, Pa.