One of the first coronavirus outbreaks in the United States was in a nursing home in the Seattle suburb of Kirkland, Washington. On the same day that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced the country’s first COVID-19 death, it also reported two cases linked to Kirkland’s Life Care Center, where two-thirds of residents and 47 staff members would eventually become infected with the virus. Of those, 35 would die.
COVID-19 deaths in America’s nursing homes are appallingly common. Many of those deaths could have been prevented if families had better options for keeping grandpa closer to home and out of crowded elder care. But building regulations passed—ironically—in the name of public health make that difficult or impossible in many cities.
Kirkland requires that any accessory dwelling units (ADUs)—often known as granny flats or in-law suites—can be no larger than 800 square feet and no higher than 15 feet above the main home. They also must come with an off-street parking space.
Of the people who applied for such permits in Kirkland since 1995, nearly half never ended up starting construction. A survey by the city in 2018 found that design constraints were the biggest difficulty applicants faced.
Kirkland’s granny flat rule is just one of countless examples of ordinances, restrictions, and red tape that have slowly wrapped up America’s cities, regulating how much people can build, where they can build it, and what they can use it for.
While often justified initially as a means of protecting public health, zoning codes have now gone far beyond nuisance laws—which limited themselves to regulating the externalities of the most noxious polluters—and control of infectious disease. They instead incorporated planners’ desires to scientifically manage cities, protect property values, and combat the moral corruption that supposedly came with high-density housing.
New York City adopted the nation’s first comprehensive zoning code in 1916, which placed restrictions on the height and density of new buildings, and classified different types of land use. Within a few years, thousands of communities across the country had adopted similar regulations.