Is there a “cross-ideological consensus” on zoning reform?

Writing in the Washington Post earlier this month, economist Ilya Somin made such a claim. Libertarians, he wrote, have opposed the strict laws that prescribe expensive, exclusionary, low-density homes in most neighborhoods across the country for some time; but now, as noted lefty economist Paul Krugman’s recent column and a speech given by the chair of President Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers show, liberals are joining the zoning reform camp.

Krugman: blowing our minds. Credit: Corey Doctorow, Flickr
Krugman: blowing our minds. Credit: Corey Doctorow, Flickr


Suffice it to say that while we’re happy to see this issue get press in the Post, much of this argument seems misguided. For one, people have been making arguably left-of-center, egalitarian arguments against zoning since at least the 1920s; and the most sustained attack on exclusionary zoning in American history occurred in the 1960s and 70s as an outgrowth of the Civil Rights Movement, hardly a bastion of libertarianism.

More importantly, though, anyone who thinks there is a “consensus” about the damage caused by too-strict zoning ought to attend the next community development meeting in their neighborhood. While there may appear to be a policy consensus among national-level policy wonks, things look very different on the ground, including the ground on which zoning policy is actually made. Arguably, something very close to a consensus has existed on zoning for quite some time—at least since the 1970s—and it’s not that it’s too strict. It’s that it’s doing a great job, and if anything needs to be stricter.

Nor is this really an “ideological” issue. Rather, it’s a financial one: homeowners dominate local development politics in large part because their homes make up such a large proportion of their total wealth that any decline in property values could devastate them. (Or, conversely, cut into huge capital gains, if they are lucky enough to own property in, say, San Francisco’s Mission neighborhood.) As a result, they’re extremely wary of any change to their surroundings that might reduce their property values—and zoning gives them the legal ability to stop those changes.

So even to the extent that there’s a consensus about the damage of zoning among policy wonks, part of that consensus is also that zoning is incredibly difficult to change, because the interest local homeowners have in preserving it is so powerful.

The inherent power of that interest is apparent even where zoning isn’t. At Better! Cities and Towns, Ben Brown takes a look at zoning-free Houston, and sees just as much catering to private interests as Somin sees in zoning codes. Though that city has no comprehensive zoning, a patchwork network of deed restrictions, historic districts, and other regulations—lobbied for heavily by homeowners and other people with interests in protecting property values—pretty much have the same effect. In fact, in a 2001 paper, Chris Berry found that Houston’s non-zoning land use system was just as exclusionary as Dallas’ more classic exclusionary zoning.

Zoning: not actually an urbanist paradise. Credit: Katie Haugland, Flickr
Houston: not actually a libertarian urbanist paradise. Credit: Katie Haugland, Flickr


But the solution obviously can’t be an end run around democratic planning. Though it may now be causing problems of its own, the revolt against top-down urban policy in the 1960s and 70s was reacting to real and devastating projects, from highways to urban renewal clearance, that booted hundreds of thousands of people from their homes—and those people were usually people of color, immigrants, low-income, or otherwise vulnerable. It’s hard to imagine how removing democratic protections against such abuses would result in much more progressive outcomes today. (In fact, some municipalities are continuing good old fashioned urban renewal clearance projects anyway.)

Rather, the path to zoning reform probably has two branches. First, make property values a less pressing issue for homeowners. We’ve covered some of William Fischel’s proposals along those lines, including reforming preferential tax policies like the mortgage interest deduction and capital gains exemptions that make housing a particularly valuable investment.

Second, make the democratic process truly democratic by allowing input from everyone significantly affected by a policy—which means making some housing decisions at a citywide, regional, or even state level, rather than neighborhood by neighborhood. While it may seem like a purely local issue whether or not an apartment building goes up on your block, we know now very well that it’s not. The sum of many decisions to block such construction makes neighborhoods, cities, and even entire regions much more expensive than they need to be, both in terms of housing costs and transportation costs as a result of sprawl.

When housing decisions are made hyper-locally, the only interests taken into account are those of nearby residents, who may have worries about their property values, the visual “character” of the neighborhood, or even more directly exclusionary concerns about the type of people who will leave near them. It also creates a sort of “prisoner’s dilemma” in which no neighborhood wants to be stuck with “undesirable,” or costly, land uses. But when decisions are made at a broader geographic level, the people who stand to gain from new housing—renters and potential buyers who want more housing options, businesses that might gain more customers, and people thinking about how more density might support the regional transit system—also get to have a voice. Scholars of zoning and segregation have argued that more local fragmentation in decisionmaking is a crucial part of using land use laws to impede integration.

Finally, zoning reform is a necessary, but not sufficient, part of a comprehensive housing plan—and including the other parts may be an important piece of assembling the political coalition for more equitable cities, bringing in more traditional affordable housing advocates and neighborhood activists. As Jamaal Green writes at Rooflines, changing land use laws to allow more housing, and more varied kinds of housing, can do a lot: slow the growth of regional housing prices; encourage integration by creating more affordable mixes of housing in high-demand neighborhoods; reduce transportation costs by allowing people to walk to some destinations and more effectively use transit; and so on. But while it’s a crucial part of making more equitable and sustainable cities, it doesn’t address every problem. Direct housing support, either through vouchers, public housing, or both, will always be necessary for people who can’t afford private housing even in efficient markets; tenant protections are needed to prevent landlord abuse, whether through illegal evictions in high-priced communities or neglect in low-demand areas; and expanded public transit is needed to efficiently and affordably connect people in all communities to jobs and services. Making zoning changes a clear part of this broader agenda is important to building broad support.

At a hyper-local level, there is no consensus that zoning needs to be made more flexible to allow more, and more varied, housing. That’s not an accident: it’s because hyper-local democracy includes people who may be adversely affected by more housing, but not most of the people who would benefit. But we do believe that most people want their cities to be affordable, diverse, and sustainable. Making housing plans at a broader level might allow people to act on those principles, rather than on their local fears—and, just as importantly, give those who stand to benefit from less exclusionary policies a democratic voice in the process.