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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.”

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