Zoning & Codes

Understanding Zoning

Example of an Urban Zoning Map

Section of an urban zoning map with colors designating classifications of restrictions.

Separated by Design: How Some of America’s Richest Towns Fight Affordable Housing” is an article on the zoning conflicts in southwestern Connecticut. Southwestern Connecticut abuts New York City and is home to many multi-millionaires (billionaires?) who work in New York City. Film and theater stars live there, including Joanne Woodward and the late Paul Newman. Wealthy businesswoman Martha Stewart lives there. It has some of the most expensive homes in the United States. And no multi-household buildings.

Zoning and Class Divisions

Separated by Design describes how communities use zoning to maintain class divisions. In this area of Connecticut zoning requires huge residential lots for each house. In some cases, each lot must be 5 or more acres. Other regulations are effective in banning multi-household buildings. This ensures that all residents will be the kind who can afford multi-million-dollar homes.

But shouldn’t neighbors be free to determine the nature of their neighborhoods? Since owners bought their homes based on the existing zoning, is it fair to change it?

This zoning also ensures restricts public schools to upper-middle-class students. No one else can afford to live there. How does this affect the right to equal opportunity in education?

The Importance of Understanding Zoning

To build homes at 50% of the median market price in the area means finding a place allowing it. Zoning will be one of your greatest challenges. If you understand how zoning affects everyone, the easier it will be to work within the system. Working within the system is to your advantage. It’s easier than changing the system, at least in the short run.

Building in urban areas can be less expensive than rural areas. You won’t have to install utilities and will be closer to other services. It will reduce transportation costs. Urban areas usually have complicated zoning restrictions, but they allow multi-household buildings. Rural areas often do not have zoning requirements and if they do exceptions are easier to get. But you will not be close to services. Costs for installing electricity, sewers, roads, etc., will be much greater.

Freedom from limitations also comes with freedom from benefits.

Confronting Reality and Working With It

But you don’t have time to complain. Developers and property owners use restrictive zoning to control neighborhoods and schools. And raise prices. Whether this is discriminatory is a major issue in a democracy. To what extent can wealth isolate social classes and the privileges of housing?

Zoning systems grew over generations. Unfortunately for cohousing, it will take generations to change them. If you want to move into a low-cost home any time soon, you can’t wait. You will have to be clever about understanding existing zoning. To find areas zoned for multi-household buildings. Or where getting exceptions takes months instead of decades.

Understanding zoning will help you be realistic as you begin researching zoning requirements. It’s more than squares and lot numbers. It’s people.


Separated by Design: How Some of America’s Richest Towns Fight Affordable Housing” was written by Rachel Rabe Thomas, a reporter with the Connecticut Mirror. It was originally published in Politico.

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