Can’t Afford Your Rent? Blame Herbert Hoover.

“At the beginning of the 20th century, there were virtually no zoning laws in the United States. By 1921, zoning had come to 48 large U.S. cities, representing a fifth of the country’s population. By 1932, 1,165 municipal governments had adopted zoning, covering more than two-thirds of the urban population. By 1968, nearly every metropolitan government had zoning, as did large swaths of rural America.

It was a revolution, and a rapid one. Property owners were once allowed to use their land for the most profitable or desirable use: live on it, sell it to a commercial or industrial business, sell it to a developer. Now nearly every municipality has rules that dictate how a piece of land can be used and what kinds of housing, if any, are allowed on it.

This wasn’t a spontaneous shift: The federal government made a concerted effort to promote the comprehensive regulation of local land use through zoning. That hasn’t just meant a decline in Americans’ liberties. It has meant sharp increases in the cost of housing and a country much more segregated by class and race.

Zoning arose at a time of rapid urbanization: The percentage of Americans living in urban areas jumped from 14 percent in 1880 to 54 percent in 1920. One source of this swelling was the Great Migration of African Americans out of the South and into Northern cities. Another was the large-scale migration of Eastern and Southern Europeans to the United States: The foreign-born share of American residents peaked at 15 percent around 1920.”

“In 1920, native-born whites were much more likely to be homeowners than were immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe, or Hispanics, or Asians, or African Americans. So zoning laws prioritized the single-family detached home and sought to isolate it from multifamily housing and from commerce. Robert Whitten, an early zoning leader who consulted around the country, was explicit about this. When Atlanta hired him to develop the city’s zoning statutes in 1922, Whitten tried to prohibit black people from living in white neighborhoods, even though the U.S. Supreme Court had struck down such laws in 1917.

More broadly, Whitten argued that even one apartment sends a community of single-family homes down a slippery slope of devaluation. His views were influential: He co-authored the New York City Planning Resolution, adopted in 1916, which the 1968 Douglas Commission—a working group charged with reporting to Congress about urban problems—later cited as setting “the basic pattern for zoning ordinances to this day.” That law attempted to curb the mixed use of land (combining businesses and residences) practiced by the city’s recent immigrants.”

“I don’t want to suggest that zoning has had no positive effects. It has helped improve the quality and safety of housing. It has made it easier to link housing developments to roads, water, sewage pipes, and other infrastructure. It has certainly accomplished its goals of stabilizing property values and helping families keep away from factories, nightclubs, and garbage dumps. It may not be the only way to achieve such ends, but it has achieved them.
Yet zoning has failed by the most obvious and measurable metric: It has made housing far less affordable.

Zoning, by its nature, restricts the supply of housing. Where prices exceed construction and renovation costs, as they do now throughout the country, developers have a strong incentive to build more units on each acre of existing land. Zoning forbids this in all but the small areas set aside for multifamily housing.”

“The United States stands out as having the largest gap between rich and poor in neighborhood quality among rich democracies. Using Gallup World Poll data from 2009–2017, I was able to calculate the percentage of people in each country who rate their neighborhood favorably in terms of overall satisfaction, safety, affordability, and similar measures. I found that people in the bottom income quintile in the United States were roughly 15 percentage points less likely to give favorable answers than people in the top income quintile. That compares to a gap of only two percentage points in Sweden.

European land use policies, scholars have found, are not biased in favor of single-family homes the way they are in the United States. And the hostility to urbanization found among early 20th century American elites wasn’t nearly as popular in Europe, which experienced centuries of city life before the United States was even established.”