5 Federal Zoning Reform Bills Every Planner Should Know

Housing reform legislation that promotes planning and encourages locally-led zoning reform is moving ahead in Congress.

While communities and states are finding innovative ways to address the nation's housing deficit, partners in Congress and the Biden administration can do more to spur housing production through federal action on zoning reform — APA's 2024 policy priority.

Congress Advances Housing Reform Bills

Here are five bills, endorsed by the American Planning Association, that would empower planners to break down barriers to housing production:

1. PRO Housing Grant Program

(Part of the Transportation, Housing and Urban Development Appropriations Bill)

This program provides support and grant funding to state and local governments and metropolitan planning organizations serious about boosting the housing supply and lowering housing costs to support planning and zoning reform. Eligible uses for funds are flexible to accommodate communities of all sizes.

In early March, the FY24 spending bill was passed into law. The package includes $100 million for PRO Housing in FY24, a $15 million increase over FY23. APA also urges Congress to include the PRO Housing grant program in the upcoming FY25 budget.

The PRO Housing program is a direct result of planners' advocacy to secure federal investment for zoning reform in recent years. While APA is working with HUD to make PRO Housing more accessible to small towns and rural areas, continued support for this legislation is a win for planners everywhere.

2. Housing Supply and Affordability Act

The Housing Supply and Affordability Act (HSAA) was reintroduced earlier this year on January 30 in both the House and Senate by Representatives Fitzpatrick (R-PA), Blunt Rochester (D- DE), and Beatty (D- OH) along with Senators Klobuchar (D-MD) and Senator Kaine (D-VA).

The goal of this bill is to encourage communities and support planners to reform zoning development codes and modernize regulatory structures that have been introduced in Congress. In addition, it would create a new Local Housing Policy Grant to provide states and localities support for efforts to increase housing supply and eliminate barriers to zoning reform. HSAA would create authorization for PRO housing funding, turning the program funding into law.

As one of the first federal programs to directly empower planners, this bill prioritizes comprehensive, responsive planning-led solutions by providing both dedicated planning grants to help communities build out housing action plans and implementation grants to help them put plans into action.

Last fall, planners were in D.C. on Capitol Hill pushing for the reintroduction of the Housing Supply and Affordability Act during APA's 2023 Congressional Fly-In.

3. Section 524 Rural Housing Site Loan Program

This bill to increase access to rural housing unanimously passed the Senate on January 23. The APA-supported legislation heads next to the House for passage.

The goal of this bill is to extend the loan window for the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Section 524 Rural Housing Site loan program. The Section 524 program provides loans to non-profits and local governments to acquire and develop land to be divided into building sites for low and moderate-income families. With the passing of this bill, the loan repayment period would increase from two years to five years, making the program more flexible in financing more housing projects.

4. Yes in my Backyard Act

The Yes in My Backyard Act aims to discourage the use of discriminatory land policies and remove barriers to making housing more affordable. Specifically, it would encourage localities to bring more transparency to the community development process.

Planners aim to eliminate historic housing patterns and use their expertise to find housing-focused solutions. The bill requires an analysis, part of the required consolidated planning process for Community Development Block Grants, on the impact of a range of existing land use and related regulations that may create barriers to housing supply and affordability. Through the review and analysis process, communities may find opportunities to reform codes and remove obstacles. This legislation is committed to local progress and reform that focuses on affordable housing and increasing development.

This bill was reintroduced in the House and Senate in May 2023. The House version remains in the House Committee on Financial Services, while the Senate version was referred to the Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs. Both House and Senate committees are planning hearings and potential votes in the upcoming weeks that may include this legislation.

5. Build More Housing Near Transit Act

The Build More Housing Near Transit Act, reintroduced to the House by Representatives Peters (D-CA) and McMorris Rodgers (R-WA) and to the Senate by Senators Schatz (D-HI) and Braun (R-IN) in 2023, encourages local governments to better align housing, transportation, and jobs through zoning reform.

This bill aims to address America's housing shortage by incentivizing local governments to build housing near federally funded transit projects. The Secretary of Transportation would provide a scoring boost to the competitive grant application of public transit projects that include housing developments near new stations. Planners know that people cannot always afford to live in the communities that they work in due to rising housing costs. Planners' data-driven insights and research show that connecting more employees with jobs in surrounding areas would reduce greenhouse gas emissions through increased ridership and boost local economies around the country.

Plus, a bipartisan compromise tax package, which included an expansion to the Child Tax Credit and the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC) was passed in the House on February 1, 2024, with a strong bipartisan vote, and it now heads to the Senate. This APA-supported program is a proven and vital tool to finance the construction of housing for low-income households.

APA Board Member Lauren Driscoll, AICP, discusses why the reintroduction of the Housing Supply and Affordability Act can spur innovations in housing through planning-led zoning reform.

APA Board Member Lauren Driscoll, AICP, discusses why the reintroduction of the Housing Supply and Affordability Act can spur innovations in housing through planning-led zoning reform.

Legislation on The Horizon

Livable Communities Act

The Livable Communities Act was introduced by Senator Menendez (D-NJ) at the beginning of March and is currently in the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs.

This bill aims to assist working families by ensuring affordable housing in connection with transit systems. This piece of legislation creates a federal grant program to incentivize the coordinated development of affordable housing and transportation options. The program is modeled on efforts piloted during the Obama administration to provide planning and plan implementation grants for regional planning and housing and transportation coordination.

Planners have seen firsthand that access to transit can help revitalize neighborhoods, create economic growth and jobs, and address the lack of housing supply in communities across the country. Innovative local planning is necessary to create zoning reform solutions and expand housing options through development plans that generate economic opportunities.

Yes in God's Backyard

After seeing success in California, a federal version of the state's 'Yes in God's Backyard' bill, formally known as the Affordable Housing on Faith Lands Act, will likely be introduced into Congress this year, though it is still in the drafting phase.

The California version of this bill will allow religious groups and nonprofit colleges to build affordable housing on their land "by right," without requiring strict adherence to zoning standards. These locations have always seen challenges when developing their sites due to a lack of financial options, real estate experience, and regulatory barriers. This bill will remove these barriers and allow faith-based organizations and non-profit colleges to partner with real estate developers to progress development projects to address the lack of housing supply across the country.

As planners have come to find, this example of zoning reform, that takes underutilized land and turns it into affordable housing, can transform communities nationwide. It remains unclear whether the federal version of the bill will resemble the California version in this same way.

Additional bills are in progress to make HUD a better partner in zoning reform through data, technical assistance, research, and support.

Federal Support Vital for Housing Reform

Urging support for APA's federal zoning reform agenda

While local and state efforts are crucial to increasing housing supply and reforming zoning, federal support remains necessary because of the severity of the nation's housing supply shortage. From small towns to big cities — and everywhere in between — community planners are working to change the status quo housing policy. These bills would recognize community planners' critical role in identifying and advancing innovative housing supply solutions and would deliver needed technical assistance and support.

Together — with planners' insights, broad view, and understanding of local housing needs — Congress can accelerate communities' efforts to increase housing opportunities for all.

Advocating for Planning-led Reform

Equity in Zoning Policy Guide cover

Dismantling Discriminatory barriers & Increasing choice

APA's Equity in Zoning Policy Guide positions planners to lead the way on zoning changes at the local, state, and federal levels by providing planners with solutions that help communities to housing supply, production, and fairness.

Top image: iStock / Getty Images Plus - ferrantraite

Sophia Flionis is APA's advocacy associate.

February 28, 2024

By Sophia Flionis