Ending single-family zoning would help close Oklahoma’s housing gap

Updated 12/22/2023 to reflect change in methodology about how agricultural land was reflected in the analysis. See methodology below.

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Oklahoma is in a housing crisis. Two in 5 Oklahoma wage earners do not make enough to afford a two-bedroom rental home working one full-time job. Workers in common professions — including emergency medical technicians, teacher assistants, and childcare workers — are not paid enough to afford housing with a single job. The state needs more than 81,000 additional homes or apartments just to meet the needs of extremely low-income renters (those making less than around $22,000 per year for a family of four). Community leaders, especially in urban areas, have expressed concern that high housing costs are making their communities unaffordable for vital workers like home health workers, teaching staff, and service industry staff. Addressing a gap this large will require a multifaceted solution, but one policy is key to increasing our housing stock and building more equitable cities: ending exclusionary single-family zoning. 

Zoning codes set by cities determine what type of buildings can be built on a parcel of land. Zoning ordinances enforce a community’s comprehensive plan, but these policies have been used as a thinly veiled tool to advance segregation. The vast majority of land in Oklahoma’s three most populous cities is zoned exclusively for single-family residences. This significantly limits more affordable housing like duplexes, triplexes, or other multifamily housing. Ending single-family zoning and allowing small multi-family homes is a proven path to improved housing availability and affordability; it’s one that Oklahoma policymakers should consider.

Zoning reforms can add housing while reducing costs

Cities and states across the country are turning to zoning reform to address their housing shortages and rising housing costs. Jurisdictions that adopted zoning reform added more housing and kept rent growth minimal compared to the national average. Minneapolis and Arlington, Virginia, banned single-family zoning; Minneapolis now permits duplexes and triplexes, and Arlington permits buildings with up to six units wherever previously only single-family homes were allowed. 

Rather than using a traditional zoning code like most American cities, Houston regulates land use through other mechanisms like deed restrictions and lot-size requirements. Deed restrictions that prohibit multi-family homes being built on a parcel of land and large lot-size requirements can ensure that nothing but a detached single-family home is built, essentially having the same effect as single-family zoning.  Houston’s land use reform to relax lot-size minimums enabled development of more than 34,000 town houses from 2007 to 2020 and increased affordability and availability of housing without sweeping changes to neighborhood character or gentrification. Ending single-family zoning opens up more land to build homes and studies show building new homes – of any type or price point – reduces housing costs for all.

As states across the country grapple with the national housing crisis, state policymakers are also adopting zoning reform — a policy historically in the purview of municipalities since these police powers were allowed by the Supreme Court in 1926. Montana passed legislation in 2023 allowing multiplex housing in areas zoned for single-family homes and allowing multifamily housing where office or retail is already permitted. Utah passed legislation in 2022 that leverages state funding to prompt cities to reform their zoning requirements to allow some moderate-income housing and to encourage more housing, including some affordable units, near public transit. In addition to increasing affordable housing stock, these reforms will help prevent urban sprawl and conserve farmland. States and cities show that zoning reform can take many shapes. But if Oklahoma maintains its status quo of prioritizing single-family detached homes, it will continue to stifle the development of the affordable housing Oklahoma desperately needs.

Exclusionary zoning hinders affordable housing development in Oklahoma

Exclusionary zoning includes land-use policies that limit the size and type of housing that can be built in a particular area.  As used in Oklahoma cities, this practice hinders the state’s ability to close the affordable housing gap. Oklahoma’s three most populous cities are majority zoned for single-family residences by right: Oklahoma City at 96 percent of residential land, Tulsa at 81 percent, and Norman at 98 percent. To build anything other than a detached single-family residence requires a cumbersome review process and approval from the city, requiring both developers and the city officials to manually review and approve each project.

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Click images below for interactive zoning maps for Oklahoma City, Tulsa, and Norman

[Click for high-res image: Oklahoma City]

[Click for high-res image: Tulsa]

[Click for high-res image: Norman]


All three cities need more affordable housing. According to a 2021 study, Oklahoma City lacks adequate housing for the 44 percent of residents earning below the area median income of $74,400 for an average household; zoning was cited as a “vital component” to make housing affordable. Tulsa needs 12,900 total units over the next 10 years to address the city’s affordable housing needs.  More than half of that housing demand is for units for residents who earn at or below the area median income, which is $67,000 per year for an average household size. Permitting activity and housing production would need to increase by more than 56 percent each year for 10 years to accommodate projected demand. Norman needs more than 23,000 units over the next 20-25 years to keep up with population growth. According to a Norman housing study, the city currently needs 9,000 affordable housing units. City officials and developers identified zoning changes as a policy solution to address this growing need. 

In all three cities, there is a stark mismatch between the established need for affordable housing and the appropriately zoned land available to build it. Increasing housing density is beneficial to communities. Developers experience lower construction costs, while they should generate additional revenue with more units available for rent or for sale. In turn, the rental or sales costs for those units should be more affordable for consumers. The bottom line is that, multifamily housing are more efficient for land use than single-family housing.

Exclusionary zoning enforces segregation and concentrates poverty

Today’s exclusionary zoning policies continue our nation’s harmful traditions of racist housing policies. When discrimination based on race became illegal, exclusionary zoning laws proliferated around the country, replicating the segregation racial discrimination had enforced. These exclusionary laws included minimum housing size requirements and bans on multifamily housing. When cities could no longer ban where people lived based on race, policymakers restricted multifamily housing, which was predominantly occupied by people of color.

Zoning codes have largely been unchanged since they were written to skirt fair housing laws and advance segregation. While today’s housing laws are no longer explicitly racist, the zoning codes from that earlier era have helped perpetuate these same harms. As a result, Black Oklahomans are disproportionately impacted by the lack of affordable housing and have been locked out of the generational wealth that comes with homeownership. Additionally, exclusionary zoning devalues homes in minority communities and blocks upward mobility of Black children.  Census data show that more Black Oklahomans rent housing rather than own their homes, while the reverse is true — and at a much higher rate — for white Oklahomans, who are more likely to own their homes than Black residents. Lack of generational wealth from homeownership for Black families has contributed to continued economic and social segregation and concentrated poverty. Racist housing policy has led to a domino effect of other racial disparities including greater exposure to environmental hazards; frequent lack of access to healthy food, health care and high-quality schools; and chronic stress due to financial hardships and fear of violence to name a few. Ending single-family zoning would be one step to rectifying past injustices.

Oklahomans need to welcome new housing in their communities

Rising housing costs – due to elevated mortgage rates and low inventory – are putting homes out of reach for low- and middle-income Oklahomans. Oklahoma needs tens of thousands of housing units to meet the state’s growing need. To close this gap, state and local policymakers need to think beyond just single-family homes and encourage a variety of housing for all different households. 

Additionally, Oklahomans need to say “yes in my backyard” to affordable housing. While Americans tend to support building more affordable housing in general, support for building in their local areas is far lower. Oklahomans can support affordable housing development by speaking to policymakers about zoning reform at the state and local level. They can show up at local zoning board meetings to champion less exclusionary housing codes. Zoning codes written decades ago have contributed to — and continue to hamper — efforts to solve modern day problems. It’s time to revisit the way we’ve always done things to build communities that work for Oklahomans of the 21st century.

Note: Interactive maps created by OK Policy Data Analyst Anthony Flores.  


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Appendix: Map Methodology and Definitions

Zoning Categories: Zoning categories refer to the types of building uses permitted by the city by-right. “By-right” usage refers to a property owner’s use of property and structures consistent with the zoning district’s permissible uses and is therefore not subject to special review and approval.  This does not mean that type of building is currently there now.1 The focus of this analysis is on mapping the administrative burdens hampering our ability to address the housing crisis with future development, not on mapping current active uses.

  • Zoning categories are hierarchical.

    • If the allowable uses include ANY multi-family buildings by-right, the lot is multi-family.
    • If the allowable uses include ANY mixed-use buildings by-right, the lot is mixed-use. Even if it also allows multi-family buildings.
  • We determine the building uses allowed by-right by referencing the allowed use table for each zoning designation (R-1, R-2, etc.) in each city’s zoning code. If a zoning overlay, such as Tulsa’s Neighborhood Infill Overlay, permits multi-family or mixed-use in a zoning district where it was disallowed (e.g., RS-3), that overlay determines the zoning category for the zoning lots covered by it.

Residential Land: In our analysis, residential land is land whose primary use is for people to live in. While almost all cities have some land designated as “agricultural” districts, in practice, many of these lots are still used exclusively for residential purposes, essentially acting as large single-family lots. Land that is not residential is not included in our analysis. Example of non-residential land is land whose building uses are exclusively commercial or industrial.

Multi-family Building: A building designed for occupancy by more than one family. Examples are duplexes, townhouses, multi-unit houses, apartments, and condos.

Mixed-Use: The incorporation of more than one principal land use type within a single structure, vertical mixed-use. For example, a building with retail uses on the ground floor, and offices or residential on the upper floors. Or, it can be different uses planned together on a single site, horizontal mixed use.

  • In all cities here, mixed-use districts permit multi-family homes by-right or implicitly through mixed-use buildings (a 5-floor apartment on top of a commercial shop).

Planned Unit Development (PUD): Most generally, a planned unit development (PUD) is a zoning tool that redefines the land uses allowed within a zoning lot/parcel. For example, some PUDs permit building multi-family homes (with some additional restrictions) in single-family zoning districts, or could be as simple as allowing a single-family home development with a smaller or unusual lot size.

  • PUDs are excluded from our calculation of the land devoted to single-family homes by-right because they required a discretionary approval process and also because their allowable uses cannot be determined with our data.2
  • The precise definition and process for PUD approval varies by municipality. Typically, a planning commission hosts public hearings and recommends approval/disapproval to the city council who have final say.

Manufactured (Mobile) Home: A manufactured home is a factory-built home that is transportable in one or more sections and built according to the national HUD Code. Mobile homes are factory-built homes built prior to the establishment of the 1976 HUD code. However, people often use these terms interchangeably.

  • Manufactured home zoning districts are categorized as single-family when the homes are given large individual lots (lot size is usually similar to a single-family home), and as their own category when on mobile home parks (which usually have density closer to multi-family districts).
  • If the zoning district allows for both individual manufactured home lots and mobile home parks, then the district is not classified as “single-family.”


1: A lot zoned to permit multi-family homes may have a single-family home developed on it, as both are permitted by-right. It is also possible for it to have a commercial use or public use (such as a hospital), usually after a special exemption from the city. Other possibilities include a building use allowed as a legacy use because it was developed before changes in the zoning code, or a zoning code violation caused by the property owner willfully or unknowingly violating the zoning code. Finally, while all data sources come from city departments or official partners and are regularly updated, the map is not a substitute for contacting city planning departments to confirm a lot’s current zoning designation.

2: Technically, once a PUD permits a multi-family home in a former single-family district, a multi-family home is allowed by-right unless it is rezoned again. However, usually the more the PUD diverges from the base zoning district, the more onerous the restrictions on what can be built there. So, future developers may have to resubmit a PUD application as conditions change even if they plan to build the same building type.

Also, in our zoning data for Oklahoma City and Norman, PUDs replace the base zoning code (R-1 → PUD), so we are unable to determine its current or prior permitted uses without additional data. Since Tulsa’s PUDs overlay the base zoning district, we categorize lots according to the base zoning district and include those lots in our calculation.



Sabine Brown joined the Oklahoma Policy Institute as Housing Senior Policy Analyst in January 2022. She previously worked at OK Policy from January 2018 until September 2020 as the Outreach and Legislative Director, and earned a Master of Public Administration degree from the University of Oklahoma-Tulsa. Before joining OK Policy she served as the Oklahoma Chapter Leader for Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America. Sabine also earned a Bachelor of Science and a Master of Health Science from the University of Oklahoma and was a physician assistant prior to discovering advocacy work. She grew up in Germany but has called Oklahoma home since 1998.