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Affordable Housing Is Climate Friendly Housing

February 12, 2024

Row of new townhouses
Row of new townhouses

“States should prohibit local zoning ordinances that bar affordable, climate-friendly housing,” writes Bryn Hines L’24.

At The Regulatory Review, Bryn Hines L’24, Editor-in-Chief, encourages states to follow Nebraska’s lead in barring single-family zoning in favor of the development of more affordable housing units. Hines argues that this course of action not only creates more affordable housing, but also makes good environmental sense.

She writes that states should intervene where local policies fail to take into account “the general welfare—whether in terms of housing availability or climate change mitigation.”

From The Regulatory Review:

In 2020, Nebraska enacted a law expected to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from passenger vehicles and housing. But the law does not reference “climate change” or “global warming.” In fact, it does not mention GHG emissions at all.

headshot of Bryn Hines L'24 Bryn Hines L’24Rather, the law aims to address Nebraska’s housing shortage by ordering municipalities to permit affordable housing units in areas previously reserved for single-family housing. In doing so, the law—intentionally or not—furthers climate goals as well. By increasing affordable housing, the law encourages the development of more energy-efficient and climate-friendly housing.

Other states should follow Nebraska’s lead by barring restrictive single-family zoning and mandating the development of more affordable housing units. Doing so not only would expand needed housing options, but also would help mitigate climate change because high-density housing is more energy-efficient than low-density, single-family housing.

Housing density refers to the number of housing units per unit of land. It is inversely related to a community’s GHG emissions because, on average, higher-density developments produce fewer emissions per housing unit. One study found that doubling an urban area’s density reduces carbon emissions from residents’ travel by 48 percent and from home energy use by 35 percent.

Single-family zoning, by contrast, accelerates urban sprawl. By increasing the distance between where people live and work, sprawl increases the amount people drive. Transportation constitutesthe largest source of U.S. GHG emissions, with passenger cars alone producing over half of all transportation emissions. To make matters worse, sprawling developments are less amenable to low-carbon public transportation systems.

Single-family zoning also encourages the construction of larger houses and detached houses, both of which demand more energy than their smaller or attached counterparts. The greater the exposed surface area and the total indoor space in a house, the more energy its occupants use to cool or heat it… . 

The Regulatory Review is a daily online publication that provides accessible coverage of regulatory policymaking and enforcement issues across a full range of regulatory topics and from a variety of perspectives.

Launched in 2009 and operating under the guidance of Cary Coglianese, Edward B. Shils Professor of Law and Professor of Political Science, The Review is edited by students at Penn Carey Law. It is part of the overarching teaching, research, and outreach mission of the Penn Program on Regulation (PPR), which draws together more than 60 faculty from across the University of Pennsylvania.

Read the full piece at The Regulatory Review.