Zoning laws have carved up cities and suburbs into single-family homes and units, largely separating household units into isolated spaces.  Because they challenge this framework, housing solutions that involve shared spaces often encounter zoning barriers.  Julie Pennington’s piece below will examine how some cohousing communities and ecovillages have overcome zoning barriers and even changed local zoning laws.  Here is a brief summary of the types of barriers people face:

Restrictions on the Number of Units on a Parcel

Most cities restrict residential land uses by capping or setting a minimum number of units that must be put on a parcel.  While the purposes of density capping are often rooted in management and protection of limited resources such as water, clean air, healthy ecosystems, and the capacity and upkeep of infrastructure such sewage treatment systems, transportation, and schools, density caps can present obstacles to groups wishing to create community-oriented housing with shared spaces.

Many people wishing to create semi-shared housing arrangements have worked around such restrictions by, for example, building an addition onto a house and including a shared kitchen in between two otherwise separate living spaces.  This is because a dwelling constructed without a kitchen sometimes does not meet the legal definition of a dwelling unit. 1   In some places, states have passed laws mandating that cities allow residents to build accessory dwelling units, also known as ADUs, granny flats, in-law units, second units, accessory apartments.  For example, recognizing that ADUs may provide the most important means by which we will house our growing population, the California legislature passed AB 1866 in 2003, requiring that cities adopt more streamlined policies for the permitting of ADUs.  Where possible, cities could increase allowable density, even in single-family residential areas, if the land will be used in a way that mitigates the typical impacts of density.  For example, if a cohousing community or ecovillage is built with systems to capture, purify, and recycle water, to manage its own waste and wastewater, to produce its own energy, and to provide residents with a car-sharing program and easy access to public transit, this would mitigate the impact on the surrounding community, local ecosystems, and city infrastructure.

Form-based zoning codes, 2 already implemented in cities around the U.S., may offer groups a unique opportunity for shared housing.  Such codes focus on urban planning based on, among other things, the form, shape, size, and impact of buildings on parcels.  This model may provide groups with the opportunity to participate in the planning and development of compact urban multiuse communities that accommodate the needs of shared living.

Restrictions on the Relationships of or Number of Occupants Per Unit

In many cities throughout the county, zoning laws still restrict the number of unrelated individuals that may live together in a unit.  Such laws have presented barriers to groups that intentionally seek to live in a shared and/or supportive living arrangement. Mental Health Advocacy Services, Inc. has issued a set of recommendations for how cities can redefine household and occupancy standards. 3

Other laws require that unrelated individuals in a unit be part of a “household unit” or “single housekeeping unit,” meaning that they share financial responsibilities and chores, and act, in some respects, like a family.   Such a law prevents a single owner of a three-bedroom house from renting out her other two bedrooms to students or other people found on Craigslist. 4

Mandatory parking spaces

Mandatory parking requirements can be a significant barrier to shared housing. In Mountain View, California, the cost of one cohousing development significantly increased, due to the city’s inflexible requirement that the development provide 2.3 parking spaces per new unit. 5  This is unfortunate, because cities could actually incentivize shared housing, car sharing, ride sharing, and public transit use by loosening requirements that each new unit be accompanied by off-street parking, and by finding other ways to ensure that street parking doesn’t become scarce.  For example, a city could require that new unit developments be accompanied by a car-sharing plan or program, transit passes for residents, bicycle parking, and other infrastructure that enables residents to not own a car.  Cities could also require residents of new units to pay higher fees for street-parking permits, since those residents would normally have incurred the expense of installing a new parking spot on the property.

Zoning for Sharing

An Article By Julie Pennington, Legal Intern, Sustainable Economies Law Center

Zoning codes set out regulations for the use of land and buildings within cities and counties, in order to protect the public health and welfare, protect natural and public resources, support economic vitality, and develop and maintain public infrastructure.  Contemporary zoning ordinances evolved from the early 20th century need to separate land uses to protect the public health and safety by, for example, separating pollution-spewing or noisy industrial mills from residential neighborhoods.  Today, with growing human populations, zoning ordinances are also used to protect public natural resources such as water and water ways, agricultural land, and open space, and to provide land for expanding public infrastructure and cultural needs.

Density restrictions imposed by zoning codes can pose a barrier to cohousing and ecovillages, as the density restrictions limit the number of units on a parcel or the number of unrelated persons permitted to live in a given space.  However, shared housing arrangements are often designed with the intention of lessening human impact on the environment, and they therefore potentially mitigate some of the negative effects of density.  For example, some cohousing communities and ecovillages adopt measures to reduce waste, share cars, use renewable energy systems, collect rainwater, recycle wastewater, and grow food.

Those who attempt to make a smaller footprint on the earth by living close together and sharing resources are wise to become familiar with laws that govern zoning in their area.  Many codes have become outdated or excessively complex as they are amended piecemeal in response to, among other things, growing human populations, expanding resource demands, and a shrinking resource base.  To make matters even more challenging, most land use decision makers are unfamiliar with contemporary shared housing models and with the economic, social, and environmental values of shared housing.  Groups and individuals who want to create and live in intentional shared housing will need to look closely at the purposes and effects of zoning codes to distinguish between unnecessary or discriminatory barriers to environmentally and socially beneficial housing solutions and codes that are needed to protect resources and infrastructure.

The good news is that citizens can participate in public local decision making processes to directly introduce zoning changes that provide for and support creative and sustainable shared housing communities.

Zoning reform may be slow to catch up to trends in the ways people are living, but committed people all over the country are encouraging their cities to think outside the boundaries of traditional zoning and develop new standards for greener development. The learning processes that these groups experience through research and dialogue with officials and neighbors offer excellent models of ways that higher-density living can work with zoning codes to allow for a reduction in environmental impact and protection of resource and infrastructure systems.

Yarrow Ecovillage and O.U.R. Ecovillage, both in British Columbia, have successfully petitioned their respective municipalities to create distinct zoning categories for their projects. In 2004 the Chilliwack City Council unanimously approved Yarrow Ecovillage’s proposal to create an “Ecovillage Zone,” the first of its kind. Yarrow was redesignated from its former “rural residential” zone to an Ecovillage Zone, which made it possible for the community to offer 40 individual residences, a community building with extensive amenities, an organic farm, an education center, and small cottage industries. Chilliwack residents identified these offerings as needed improvements to the entire city, yet they would not have been permitted within the confines of the previous rural residential zoning.

The land that O.U.R. Ecovillage in Cowichan Valley, BC, occupied was previously designated as a “secondary agricultural” zone, which meant that its likely use might be pasture grazing or hay production. The group entered a full comprehensive development rezoning process, which transformed the limitations of the space to allow a variety of land uses in a single zone and involved multiple public meetings and hearings, as well as an amendment to the local official community plan.  At the conclusion of this process, O.U.R. Ecovillage was designated as Rural Community Residential “Ecovillage” in 2003. The successful rezoning of the space allowed the group much more flexibility in the use of their land. Because of the rezoning, barriers were removed to allow O.U.R. Ecovillage to create multiple dwellings to house a larger number of people, a food production facility and related businesses, ecological restoration and education programs, and an eco-bed & breakfast. As an extension of their commitment to protecting sensitive ecosystems, the group also chose to preserve one third of the land as park space.

Founding members of Dandelion Village began meeting in 2009 to design and build an ecovillage and cohousing community in Bloomington, Indiana, that would utilize alternative energies, creative transportation methods, ecological agriculture, and natural construction. Because the group knew that their ecovillage design didn’t quite fit into any of the established zones in Bloomington’s zoning portfolio, they worked closely with the City Planning Department to consider properties where rezoning would attract the least possible resistance. They settled on 2.23 acres of land situated between two railroad tracks and just south of a junkyard, yet only a few blocks from one of the city’s most thriving neighborhoods. Dandelion members understood that, if each new ecovillage or cohousing community had to reinvent the process of seeking variances or rezoning in the unique municipality where they operate, the sustainability of the ecovillage as a larger concept would be lost in the laborious process.  Their work expanded beyond simply finding a way to make their creative vision fit what existed, to creating a framework and precedent that could be replicated widely.  To move toward this goal, and with the blessing of city officials, the group entered the PUD process that developers go through to define the look and location of homes in traditional new developments like apartment complexes or gated communities. PUD stands for “Planned Unit Development,” but Dandelion Village creatively reinterpreted the acronym in their proposal to reflect their purpose, “Permaculture Urban Demonstration.” Their PUD proposal offered in-depth plans for how the Village intends to take natural forces like water, wind, sun, and sound into account and harness those elements for optimal integration into the design of the community.  To craft the proposal, members sought input from architects, engineers, and permaculture experts, and surveyed other successful ecovillages and cohousing communities. Their design weaves in goals and recommendations already established by local conservation taskforces and planning bodies, and the proposal was reviewed by city officials regularly.

Through the PUD process, Dandelion Village members’ attitude of flexibility and cooperation undoubtedly played a major role in the success of passing their proposal.  After meeting with their planning committee and neighbors for several months, the group voluntarily amended their original vision several times to adapt to the concerns and desires of their community. For example, after processing input from officials, they voluntarily reduced the proposed number of homes from 25 to 10, reduced the number of adults from 75 to 30, refined their drainage plan, and reduced the number of square feet that they asked to build on.  Like Yarrow Ecovillage and O.U.R. Ecovillage, Dandelion Village recognized the crucial role that neighbors play in the success or struggle of a project like this one.  They organized a meeting to gather input from neighbors and individually visited over 100 homes to field concerns while inviting neighbors to join the Planning Commission dialogue.  Soon after purchasing the land, members of Dandelion Village worked with neighbors to revive the defunct neighborhood association, thereby instigating a positive forum for dialogue and relationship building.  This combination of thoughtfulness for community needs and smart design ideas reflects an excellent strategy based in cooperative principles.  In October 2011, Dandelion Village obtained the significant rezoning to allow the development of a mixed cooperative housing community that will house up to 30 unrelated adults, plus children, while utilizing natural energy sources, preserving and restoring native habitats, and promoting values of cooperative living.

As demographics change and the need for resource conservation and available housing grows, the ways that people live must change and are changing.  Zoning may likewise adapt to meet these needs and reflect shareable solutions.  The thoroughly documented proposals and the successes of these projects have the potential to serve as models for establishing shared housing zoning ordinances in cities around the country.


  1. For example, the International Residential Code (2009) defines “Dwelling Unit” as “A single unit providing complete independent living facilities for one or more persons, including permanent provisions for living, sleeping, eating, cooking and sanitation.”
  2. For more information on form based codes, see the Form Based Codes Institute: www.formbasedcodes.org
  3. “Fair Housing Issues Land Use and Zoning: Definitions of Family and Occupancy Standards” by Mental Health Advocacy Services, Inc., September 1998, Available at http://www.housingrights.org/pdfs/def_family.pdf
  4. See, for example, a proposed Los Angeles law called the “State Licensed Facilities” ordinance, Council File 11-0262, which defines a boarding house as: “A one-family dwelling where lodging is provided to individuals with or without meals, for monetary or non-monetary consideration under two or more separate agreements or leases, either written or oral.”
  5. “Cohousing and Carsharing: A Great Opportunity,” by Neal Gorenflo, published by Shareable on October 11, 2009, available at http://shareable.net/blog/cohousing-and-car-sharing-a-great-opportunity