Single-Family Zoning Is Weird

Justin Fox

Dahlem is one of the most affluent neighborhoods in Berlin, its lovely, leafy streets lined with large mansions — villas, the Germans call them 1 — built mostly in the early 1900s. As I walked from the thatch-roofed Dahlem-Dorf U-Bahn station to dinner at the home of a not-exactly-Daddy-Warbucks friend one recent evening, I initially puzzled at how he managed to afford such posh surroundings. Then I saw a villa with six doorbell buttons at the front gate instead of just one. I noticed one or two more such subdivided villas after that, plus a couple of small plaques indicating that there were doctor’s offices inside. My friend’s place turned out to be in a small apartment building that was newer than the surrounding houses, but built to about the same scale.

Such mixed housing is not entirely unheard of in the U.S., but it is found mainly in neighborhoods that predate zoning, which began its stateside rise in the 1910s and 1920s. 2 In the zoning era, especially since World War II, the general rule for residential neighborhoods has been single-family houses and only single-family houses, with no apartments or businesses allowed.

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