The 10 US cities where it’s hardest to build affordable housing

  • Restrictive zoning, often originally designed to exclude people of color, persists in metros across the US. 
  • A new database created by the Eviction Lab at Princeton University ranks metro areas. 
  • The top 10 most exclusionary metro areas include coastal hubs as well as a few Midwestern cities.

The nation’s capitol and its surrounding suburbs have the most restrictive and exclusionary zoning of any metropolitan area in the US, according to a new “Zoning Restrictiveness Index” and database created by The Eviction Lab at Princeton University.

Restrictive zoning policies are a major obstacle to building more housing, particularly affordable housing for lower and middle-income Americans, amid a national housing shortage.

The New York, Northern New Jersey, and Long Island metro area is the second-most restrictive in the country, according to the Index. The Providence, RI and Seattle regions are also in the top five. 

But restrictive zoning isn’t limited to major coastal cities. The Midwestern cities of Milwaukee and Detroit are also among the top 10 most exclusionary areas. 

Exclusionary zoning — or zoning and land use regulations that limit density and exclude lower-income residents — has racist origins. These regulations, which include single-family zoning, minimum lot sizes, and building height restrictions, were originally designed to maintain racial segregation in residential communities across the country. 


Even in the modern context where explicit discrimination is no longer legal, restrictive residential zoning creates and perpetuates racial and socio-economic segregation by keeping poor, Black, and brown residents out of wealthier, disproportionately white neighborhoods.

And it prevents neighborhoods from becoming more dense, worsening the national housing shortage and limiting the supply of much-needed affordable housing. Multi-family homes, apartment buildings, and other more affordable housing are illegal to build in vast swaths of the nation’s residential neighborhoods. These policies are particularly harmful in places with great job opportunities, schools, and high quality of life that face much higher demand for housing than is available.

And the impacts of exclusionary zoning are generational. Researchers at Harvard have found that kids who move to wealthier neighborhoods are much more likely to go to college and earn significantly more money as adults. 

The National Zoning and Land Use Database is “the most open-source method for zoning and land use data creation to date,” according to the Eviction Lab. The organization said its database takes into consideration many different regulations that impact what kind of housing can be built in a community, including minimum lot size, maximum permitted density, minimum parking, maximum building height, .