David Stokes, Director of Municipal Policy at the Show-Me Institute


Zoning can be a complicated issue for people who believe in limited government and market-based policies. There is the conflict between the rights of people to organize their community how they want it, the rights of people to develop their own property as they see fit, and the issue of how local governments will prioritize those rights.

Usually, any discussion of reducing or ending zoning immediately leads to nightmare scenarios of a chemical plant opening right next door to your house. (This actually happens in rural areas with concentrated animal feeding operations, but that is another issue.) But what if the concerns and questions are about much smaller changes to zoning?

The city of Webster Groves is undergoing such a debate right now. The  city council recently passed changes to the zoning code that will increase housing and development options in parts of the city. In short, the city will allow more small, multi-family homes (i.e. duplexes) in parts of the city previously reserved for single-family zoning. The stated reason for the change was to provide greater housing options that might allow people from different backgrounds to move into Webster Groves. 

However, a group of residents opposed to the changes has collected enough signatures to put that ordinance change up for a referendum on the ballot on Aug. 3. Those residents, like many suburban residents in our country, prefer single-family zoning for their communities. Needless to say, the upcoming vote has stoked a great deal of interest in Webster Groves. I don’t think the town has been this riled up since the premiere of “Sixteen in Webster Groves” 55 years ago. 

The debate over allowing more duplex housing could be academic enough with good arguments on both sides, but from discussions with residents, letters to the editor and more, it’s pretty clear this debate is closely related to issues of public housing as well. 

Two years ago, Webster Groves added “source of income” to the anti-discrimination rules of its housing ordinances. That means that a landlord in Webster Groves can’t refuse to rent to a person or family who will use a federally funded Section 8 housing voucher to pay the rent. This goes far beyond Obamacare simply requiring everyone to buy health insurance — this law says that a landlord is now compelled to participate in a welfare program whether they want to or not. Bake the cake, landlord! (Keep in mind that Section 8 is a federal program, and there is no federal requirement that landlords accept it). Taken in combination, it is not unreasonable for some people in Webster Groves to think that this rezoning is a first step toward much greater use of multi-family housing and Section 8 vouchers in their city. 

Should a community ban use of the camel because it occasionally sticks its nose under the tent? I guess it depends on what you think about the tent. If your community is based on one tent per family per lot and you and your neighbors like the community you have built that way, changes in zoning to allow for more tents per lot can be concerning. But if you think tent prices are too high and people need more options, then a simple allowance for two smaller tents on a parcel instead of just one makes sense. (And make sure that camel is not a nonconforming pet under the animal code.) 

The rubber will meet the road in debates about equality in housing policy when people — including suburban liberals who claim to passionately support more diversity and inclusion — are forced to consider changes that could affect their own home values and community makeup. 

I don’t claim to know what the people of Webster Groves should do in the long run. (Though they should definitely use another referendum to get rid of the terrible “source of income” rule). However, people have a right to create and abide by zoning laws that maintain the type of community they want to live in, even if not everyone would make that same choice. It is going to be very interesting to see debates like this play out across Missouri’s suburban communities in the coming years.