Why Jews Should Care About Zoning

What is Zoning? Why should Jews care about it?

A Zoning Code is a set of laws that determine what can be built and how buildings can be used in any given area. Zoning determines how many people can live and work within the boundaries it sets out by mandating whether detached houses, rowhomes, apartment buildings, retail and office space, and other uses are permitted on which lots. By setting limits on how tall buildings can be, how far away from each other they have to be or whether they can touch, how big the yards have to be, how much parking is required per household, and many more limits, Zoning determines how many people can live in an area. Combined with the reasons that draw people to the place (like jobs or religious communities), zoning determines how much housing is going to cost.

On top of the effects that zoning causes for housing affordability, residential segregation, traffic violence, and greenhouse gas emissions, Jews should care about zoning as a Jewish issue because Jewish life depends on community. A neighborhood with a thriving Jewish community is limited by the number of homes available in it; in a neighborhood that is growing, existing residents and newcomers benefit together and the community flourishes. When a neighborhood prevents new housing from being built, newcomers and young residents growing up who wish to stay in the neighborhood are forced to bid up the price of existing homes or look elsewhere (and if they move to a lower-cost neighborhood with similar restrictions on new housing, they often end up pricing out lower-income households from the next neighborhood in turn).

Put simply, Jewish communities located in neighborhoods with high housing costs and restrictions on new housing make it harder for younger and lower-income Jews to take part in Jewish life.

Observant Jews have additional reasons to care about zoning: under most interpretations of halakhic observance, Shabbat and Holidays require that we walk rather than drive to synagogue and to the homes of family and friends. Having more homes located close to a synagogue enables more members to walk to and from shul. Walkability for more households will enrich Shabbat and Holiday observance and encourage more vibrant social connections among congregants for meals, celebrations, and support.

Additionally, the American Jewish experience and Jewish value of caring for immigrants and refugees requires more than performative support: these newcomers to America need places to live. Just as Jews fleeing antisemitism and violence in previous eras came to the US in search of a better life, so too can we make sure that our country, our cities, and our neighborhoods remain welcoming places for those coming from around the world today.

2 particular types of Jewish communities are in particular need of new housing. For communities in expensive, low-density suburban areas, the need to attract more young families is becoming acute. Not only does the local low density zoning translate to a smaller number of overall households, it also makes the housing in the area much more expensive. Apartments, condos and row houses are more affordable than single family homes on large suburban lots.

Jewish communities in places that are already walkable, transit-rich, and also high demand and flourishing, like New York and Los Angeles, also need to respond to restricted housing supply by supporting new apartments and higher density.

What can a Jewish community do to promote more housing and more affordable housing in their neighborhoods?

The biggest step any community can take to promote housing and affordability in their neighborhood is to legalize and support building denser construction of homes in the places where you live. Whether the rules governing housing are controlled by a State, City, County, or other local government, organizing a community to support the creation of more homes within walking distance to a synagogue or another Jewish institution, in the same city and metro area, and at the statewide level is a crucial step toward creating space for your community to grow. Congregations with underutilized land should also consider developing housing directly.

If you or your community is interested in learning more, we at YIMBY Jewish would be happy to offer guidance, host programming and provide speakers to discuss the intersection of Jewish community and housing policy, and connect you with other activists in your neighborhood, city, and state working to make housing more affordable in everyone’s back yards.

What is YIMBY Jewish?

YIMBY Jewish is a chapter of YIMBY Action. YIMBY Action is a nationwide pro-housing membership organization that advocates for the creation of more housing (subsidized and market rate) in high demand neighborhoods in order to reduce rents, reduce crowding, reduce commutes, increase access to good jobs and good schools, increase labor mobility, and to promote economic and racial integration.

Jewish YIMBYs believe that pro-housing YIMBY policies would also bring important benefits to Jewish communities and express important Jewish values. More housing in Jewish neighborhoods makes it easier to live close to synagogues, community centers, and other institutions of Jewish life, reduce cost barriers, and allow communities to grow. Increasing access to housing, transit, and jobs in neighborhoods where we live also allows us to welcome and support the Stranger, the Widow, and the Orphan, to reduce the discriminatory impacts of exclusionary housing policies, and to create cities where all feel at home.