Policy Brief: Cities, Zoning, and the Fragmented Response to Homelessness

Authors: Dr. Katherine Levine Einstein (Boston University Initiative on Cities; Department of Political Science) and Dr. Charley Willison (Cornell University Public Health)

In this brief, the Boston University Initiative on Cities, Cornell University, and Community Solutions examine how local governments can better address and end homelessness through improved coordination of homelessness and zone/land use planning policies.

America’s cities are facing a pressing homelessness crisis, with insufficient affordable housing as the chief cause. Local governments are critical policy partners in addressing and ending homelessness through their control over land use policy, what housing gets built in a community, and where it can be built.

This policy brief explores the fact that there is little coordination of cities’ homelessness and zoning/land use planning policies, with findings such as:

  • Only 54 percent of the nation’s 100 largest cities have homelessness plans. Plans are important documents which help to coordinate complex policies and services across different departments. Their absence suggests a serious general fragmentation in local homelessness policy-making.
  • A small share of those cities that do have homelessness plans mention housing policies. Only 30 percent mention land use and zoning — the most powerful policy tools that local governments wield in reducing the local cost of housing. Higher shares mention eviction (61 percent) and affordability (87 percent). 
  • Mayors similarly do not perceive land use and zoning to be an important component of homelessness policy. Only 32 percent believe that land use and zoning are significant barriers to addressing homelessness, despite the centrality of these policies to reducing housing costs. 
  • Federal government plans have begun to incentivize connecting these important policy arenas, but could do more to clarify and strengthen the link between homelessness and housing policy.
View the Full Policy Brief



January 30, 2023: Governing: Few Mayors Connect the Dots Between Zoning and Homelessness