There’s always something to howl about

Reason Magazine: “How established homeowners use regulations to stop new low-cost homes.”

It’s not mentioned in the Reason article, but the real curse of zoning is the prohibition of innovation. By forbidding all projects, land-use tyrants exclude not just the dreck but also the sheer genius. Some builder coud have come up with the modern equivalent of Wright’s Five-Thousand Dollar Home, but that guy works in software instead, where innovation is celebrated and rewarded.

Meanwhile, the hard consequences of coercive land-use regulations:

When a news crew showed up to film a public meeting in tony Darien, Connecticut, in 2005, some of the residents were less than thrilled. “Why don’t you fucking shoot something else?” one demanded. Hundreds crammed into the hearing, sneering and jeering during the presentation.

The fresh hell residents showed up to protest? A proposal to replace a nondescript single-family home on a one-acre lot with 20 condos for senior citizens.

In Snob Zones, journalist Lisa Prevost describes the heights of entitlement to which property owners ascend when faced with the prospect of new development, especially multi-family dwellings in neighborhoods dominated by single-family homes. Prevost tours New England and finds an aging, declining populace bent on excluding outsiders. In town after town, affluent and working-class alike, residents line up to shout down new development no matter how modest.

In Darien, the need for the proposed project was clear; the town’s senior housing center had a long wait list, as did the last condo development built in the area (in 1994). Still, many townsfolk, expecting the project to open the floodgates to more high-density projects in the resolutely low-density burgh, were incensed.

Incumbent homeowners have a powerful weapon for vetoing change: zoning. In Darien and other exclusive zip codes, mandated minimum lot sizes kneecap developers who want to build something other than super-sized homes. In the process, they put entire towns out of reach for all but the wealthy. In hardscrabble Ossippee, New Hampshire, where it’s not uncommon for the working poor to live in tents during the summer months to save on rent, the zoning code flatly prohibits new apartment buildings.

Though Prevost, who covers the real estate beat for The New York Times, has no problem with the traditional justification for zoning (but for it, she believes, dirty industries might locate in residential neighborhoods), she has written as damning an indictment of zoning as any free marketeer could hope for. “The market is hungry for apartments, condominiums, and small homes,” says Prevost, “if only zoning restrictions would get out of the way.”

Where libertarians see an infringement on property rights, Prevost sees a problematic tradeoff between local demands for low density (tinged with fears that undesirables might move in next door) and regional needs for affordable housing. It amounts to the same thing, however: established residents using government force to kill the low-cost housing that would exist in a free market. In the words of the pioneering community planner (and ardent urban renewal opponent) Paul Davidoff, those who wield zoning laws “have not bought the land but instead have done the cheap and nasty thing of employing the police power to protect their own interest.” Nice.

Read the whole thing. Here’s a sweet joke for incentive:

In the words of one developer who switched to building cottage homes during the recession: “I used to say, we’re building homes for people who can’t afford them, with money they don’t have, to impress people they don’t know. You could just see it—it was stupid.”


10 Comments so far

  1. Andrew May 21st, 2013 9:51 am

    Haha wow I really got a kick out of this article. Zoning has its drawback with preventing innovation but it does help with development of affordable housing to be integrated well locally. Nonetheless, this article was by far one of the more entertaining ones I have read. Thanks!

  2. Jolenta Averill May 23rd, 2013 11:48 am

    Excellent article which really highlights the issues. Refreshing for someone like me who just wants a balanced look at both sides. I’m not sure how we pulled it off but in Madison Wisconsin we have zoning laws that create mixed housing in very neighborhood. No one is “immune” to apartments and multi-family dwellings being built right in their backyard as witnessed by the recent erection of a low-income apartment building right next door to a luxury highrise! I do cringe when I think what some of the early purchasers’ units are now worth — not that they ever had views of the lake but now they have a direct view of the apartment building unless they’re above a certain floor. Still, it’s a better option than concentrating all low-income residents in a single area besides many other residual benefits too detailed to go into here. Urban planning at its best, I say!

  3. Jolenta Averill May 23rd, 2013 11:50 am

    *”in every neighborhood”(NOT “in very neighborhood”)

  4. Joseph Santiago May 24th, 2013 1:00 am

    Interesting article, I have learned a few things in this post.

  5. cooksquared May 26th, 2013 6:36 pm

    Interesting article. I dont love zoning in general, but with so much land out there, I dont see the point of getting up in arms about it. The zoning laws are normally priced into your property. In places where there are no zoning laws, I dont feel that neighborhoods are better or that much worse.

    There is something to be said about not building a strip club next to an elementary school, but in general, people dont do crazy things like they because they will likely not be patronized.

    The new trend towards master planned communities is a mixed blessing in my opinion. Real estate cycles come so fast now, a master plan could be outdated before 20% of the neighborhood gets going.

  6. Kelly Cartwright May 29th, 2013 12:27 am

    “I used to say, we’re building homes for people who can’t afford them, with money they don’t have, to impress people they don’t know. You could just see it—it was stupid.”

    The is actually true. How ironic most people boast about things like buying low cost homes which in the end would make them even broke.

  7. Tim Shepard May 30th, 2013 5:00 am

    Not only does zoning remove innovation, it also stifles individual entrepreneurship. Complex regulations require expensive attorneys, designers, engineers, and lobbyists to get projects approved, strongly favoring deep pocketed companies. Fortunately, many parts of the south,southeast and southwest do not have these prohibitions. That’s why you see strong growth in these areas.

  8. Ashlee June 4th, 2013 3:51 pm

    Interesting read. I personanally have a love hate relationship with zoning. It promotes uniformity but does limit innovation and often the greater good. My qualm with master planned communities is that they sometimes artificially inflate the market due to the developers projected return by controlling their micro market.

  9. Dan June 20th, 2013 8:36 am

    yes, zoning regulations and neighborhood committees have been successful in preventing cheap new housing construction.

  10. Gabe Sanders June 22nd, 2013 3:48 pm

    What some see as innovation, others may see as urban sprawl. I will grant that zoning can be used as an excuse to keep some worthwhile projects from being developed, but it can also be used for keeping neighborhoods cohesive and desirable.

    I wouldn’t want the vacant lot next to my home become a restaurant and bar.