Zoning Regulations Empower Control Freaks—and Bigots

“Imagine you’re a member of a religious minority that’s on the receiving end of a lot of hate, and the local zoning board is giving you a hard time over plans to expand your house of worship. Is it regulators being their nitpicky selves? Are the neighbors weaponizing rules to squeeze out the cars and foot traffic that accompany any successful endeavor? Or could it be hostility directed at your faith? Zoning has been used and abused in all these ways, which underlines the need for reform.”


San Francisco’s Can-Kicking on Zoning Reform Could See It Lose All Zoning Powers

“It takes San Francisco three years on average to fully approve new housing projects, the longest of any jurisdiction in California, according to an audit published by the state Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD) in October.
The very predictable result is that the Golden State’s fourth-largest city is also one of the nation’s most expensive, with median one-bedroom rents above $2,000 and a median home value of $1.4 million.

That San Francisco is expensive because it takes forever to approve new housing isn’t a new finding. Whether the city will actually get rid of the regulations gumming up home construction is now coming to a head.”


A Town Without Zoning Fights To Stay Free

“Caroline’s zoning supporters are typically either active or retired professionals. They live in the town and love it as much as anyone. But they also have no need to make a living there. It’s a position that lends itself to more restrictive notions of what should be allowed in Caroline: some homes, some businesses, some farms, and a lot of protected views and open space.
For them, a zoning code is a pretty straightforward way of protecting the things they like about Caroline while banning the things they think will spoil it. And if anti-zoners are worried about losing the ability to do something on their land, they should say as much, and come to the table to get protections included in the draft code.

Things aren’t so simple for Caroline’s anti-zoners. The necessity of making a living from their land means they have to be pretty open and adaptable to change. They often don’t know what the future will bring. It’s impossible for them to say how they might want to use their properties in the future.”

Despite Multiple States Abolishing Single-Family-Only Zoning, Very Few Duplexes and Triplexes Are Being Built

“The modest increase in housing production can be largely explained by how marginal many of these missing middle reforms have been.
Often, cities will legalize missing middle housing without allowing the new multi-unit buildings to be much larger than the single-family homes they’d replace. That means a builder faces all the costs of tearing down an old unit without the ability to add much additional revenue-generating floor space.”

“Another problem facing missing middle home construction is a whole thicket of nonzoning rules and practices that assume new construction will either be single-family homes or larger apartment buildings.

The Zoning Theory of Everything

“Zoning regulations control what kinds of buildings can be constructed where, and then what activity can happen inside them. They effectively socialize private property while controlling even the most mundane features of our physical environment and daily routines. Zoning rules flip property rights on their head, curtailing the owners’ ability to do what they wish on their land. In exchange, they sometimes give people near–veto power over what happens on their neighbors’ property.
Whether a disused shed stays cluttered with rusty lawn care equipment, is turned into a home business, or is converted into an in-law suite might not seem like a major decision. But the existence of a whole body of laws dedicated to controlling that decision tells you how far zoning reaches into American lives. The consequences of these laws are as far-reaching as they are devastating.”

“The immediate costs of zoning are straightforward: By limiting new housing construction, zoning drives home prices up in—and drives people out of—the most in-demand neighborhoods. By micromanaging commercial activity, zoning prevents entrepreneurs from trying new things, making everyone poorer in the process.”

“The conventional view of the Great Recession is that excess demand for housing—caused by some combination of loose monetary policy, government-subsidized credit, and unscrupulous lenders—inflated a bubble that inevitably had to pop. Leftists, liberals, libertarians, and conservatives can all find something to agree with in this theory.

But it’s wrong, according to Kevin Erdmann, a senior affiliated scholar at George Mason University’s Mercatus Center. Erdmann has advanced a heterodox theory that this century’s most serious economic contraction before the pandemic can be traced back to zoning laws in the most in-demand cities.

In a 2020 paper on the origins of the recession, Erdmann and economist Scott Sumner argue that monetary policy was not exceptionally loose in the lead-up to the financial crisis and that new residential investment was not high by historic standards. Most of the toxic assets and bad mortgages originated after housing prices had already started to decline.

Erdmann and Sumner also point out that prices were increasing fastest in coastal “closed access” cities like New York and San Francisco, where the economy was booming but restrictive zoning regulations prevented much new housing from being built. The result was an out-migration of lower-income people to “contagion cities” in Nevada, Florida, Arizona, and other places where home building was less regulated. Erdmann and Sumner lay the housing crisis directly at the feet of NIMBYs—”not in my backyard” activists who opposed the construction of new housing.

“The NIMBY phenomenon that led to housing scarcity in closed-access cities induced households to migrate from large multi-unit buildings in dense coastal cities to single-family homes in cheaper cities,” write Erdmann and Sumner. “The primary source of demand was households looking to economize on housing consumption by moving out of the expensive coastal cities.”

Think of Mark and Patricia McCloskey as a class of activist. The McCloskeys of San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York City tried to protect their views, their property values, and their relatively low-traffic streets with zoning laws that banned apartments across whole swaths of the city. Lack of supply met huge demand, hiking prices in the process. Middle-class people were effectively priced out of urban apartments because those apartments were simply never built.

So instead of living in Los Angeles and New York City, middle- and lower-income people moved to Las Vegas and Phoenix. That influx of demand saw prices spike and builders respond by throwing up lots of new homes. The glut of new homes in inexpensive Sun Belt cities wasn’t just the result of an overinflated financial system. It was a response to real demand from cost-burdened coastal emigrants.

All this had massive macroeconomic consequences. Erdmann and Sumner argue the Great Recession was ultimately caused by federal officials misinterpreting rising home prices as a bubble rather than the result of a real shortage. So they tightened monetary and lending policy, and that tipped a rational building boom into an artificially induced recession.

It’s an out-of-the-box theory that deemphasizes or disputes many common libertarian diagnoses of the Great Recession that center on an overly profligate Federal Reserve or on reckless financial institutions banking on an inevitable federal bailout. But it does explain how the country was able to go from a supposed glut of housing oversupply to a shortage of somewhere between 4 million and 20 million homes. The glut was overinterpreted—and the shortage never went away.”

“When NIMBY zoning rules cut off industries from innovation-breeding cities, the economy’s productivity as a whole suffers. Fewer inventions are created; fewer new ideas catch on. The higher wages and standards of living all that growth would have created do not materialize.

In “The Housing Theory of Everything,” a 2021 essay for Works in Progress, Sam Bowman, John Myers, and Ben Southwood cobble together the most recent research to estimate that zoning restrictions cost the average American somewhere between $8,800 and $16,000 a year in foregone income.”

New York Gov. Kathy Hochul’s Housing Plan Avoids Common Mistake of Other YIMBY Reforms

“New York has some of the most restrictive local zoning regimes in the country, resulting in rock-bottom rates of housing construction and sky-high prices.
Now, Democratic Gov. Kathy Hochul is proposing to fix this sad status quo by allowing developers to bypass city and town zoning codes altogether and get their housing projects approved directly by a fast-tracked state process.

“Through zoning, local communities hold enormous power to block growth,” said Hochul in her annual State of the State address yesterday. “People want to live here, but local decisions to limit growth mean they cannot. Local governments can and should make different choices.””

Zoning Police Continue To Find New Ways To Punish the Poor

“Some people live together by choice. Others share space out of necessity. Lack of affordable housing forces many families to adjust, but the zoning police remain rigid in Cobb County, Georgia.
Even during a nationwide housing crisis, code enforcers northwest of Atlanta continue to enforce a narrow vision of suburbia. One rule limits overnight parking based on property size. Families can have one car for every 390 square feet of living space, which effectively prevents more than two vehicle owners from living together in a 1,000-square-foot unit.

Teen drivers are out of luck. So are adult children, college students, mothers-in-law, and any guest who stays longer than one week. The city does not concern itself with individual circumstances, nor does it care if vehicles remain in good condition with current tags. It counts newer models and clunkers the same.”

Pennsylvania Town Threatens Churches With $500 Fines for Providing Free Meals, Counseling Services

“Two Philadelphia-area churches have come under fire from local zoning officials, who say their free meal services, mental health counseling, and monthly pantries aren’t allowed on their properties and will have to stop or else they risk fines.

In early June, Pottstown staff sent letters to Christ Episcopal Church and Mission First, saying that this charitable work went beyond the allowable activities for churches in the borough’s Downtown zoning district.”

“The two churches can either apply for a zoning variance—which requires going before the borough’s Zoning Hearing Board—or stop the disallowed charitable work. Failure to do either of those things could result in the churches being hit with $500 fines for every day they’re out of compliance.

“It was an absolute surprise when we got this letter,” says Dennis Coleman, the deacon of Christ Episcopal Church. He says that his church has been providing meals and an “essentials” pantry for years without incident.”

“Even when charitable activities are allowed by the zoning code, the process for getting them approved is long and discretionary. Frequently, it will involve public hearings where opponents have the opportunity to urge zoning officials to deny permits for a new soup kitchen or shelter.”

Abolish Zoning—All of It

“It’s time for America to move beyond zoning.

At surface level, zoning is an impossibly boring topic, even by the terms of public policy debate. The mere thought of a weeknight zoning hearing or a 700-page zoning ordinance is enough to make even the most enthusiastic policy wonk’s eyes glaze over. Until recently, zoning might have been blithely dismissed as a mere technical matter, simply a way of rationalizing our cities, a planning policy so obvious as to be beyond reproach.

But zoning is at once so much less and so much more. While occasionally used as a stand-in for city planning or building regulations more broadly, its scope is far more limited: At a basic level, all zoning does is segregate land uses and regulate densities. Your local zoning ordinance sets out various districts, each with detailed land use and density rules, while an associated local zoning map establishes where these rules apply. The bread and butter of what most people think of as city planning—such as street planning or building regulations—has almost nothing to do with zoning.

Yet from these seemingly innocuous zoning rules have emerged a set of endlessly detailed parameters controlling virtually every facet of American life. Arbitrary lines on zoning maps determine where you can live by way of allowing housing to be built here but not there. Through a dizzying array of confusing and pseudoscientific rules, from “floor area ratio” restrictions to setback mandates, zoning serves to heavily restrict the amount of housing that may be built in any given neighborhood and the form it may take. In most major cities, zoning restricts roughly three-quarters of the city to low-slung, single-family housing, banning apartments altogether.

The combined effect is that, in already built-out cities, zoning makes it prohibitively difficult to build more housing. As a result of the further tightening of zoning restrictions beginning in the 1970s, median housing prices have dramatically outpaced median incomes in many parts of the country over the past half-century, such that millions of Americans now struggle to make rent or pay their mortgage each month. That is if they have the luxury of having a stable home at all: In places where demand for new housing is especially high—as in cities like New York and Los Angeles—zoning restrictions have facilitated acute housing shortages, with attendant surges in displacement and homelessness. The COVID-19 pandemic has only expedited these trends, with home prices in 2020 rising at the fastest rate since 1979.

The arbitrary restrictions that zoning places on cities also show up in our capacity to grow and innovate as a nation. By severely limiting new housing production in a handful of our most productive cities—including San Jose and Boston—we have made moving to our most prosperous regions a dubious proposition. Your income might double if you were to move from Orlando to San Francisco, but your housing costs would quadruple. Should we be surprised that many people are turning down that deal? For the first time in history, Americans are systematically moving from high-productivity cities to low-productivity cities, in no small part because these are the only places where zoning allows housing to be built. According to the 2020 census, the population of California—one of our most productive and innovative states—is now basically stagnant, such that the Golden State will be losing a congressional seat for the first time in its 170-year history.

The downstream economic implications of this unprecedented reversal of historic trends are hard to overstate. After all, big cities make us more productive, in that they allow us to find a job perfectly suited to our talents and exchange ideas with colleagues working on the same issues. They provide a platform for individuals to experiment and innovate, nursing the young firms that go on to remake the American economy every few decades. To the extent that zoning has made it exponentially more difficult for Americans to move to these hubs of activity—for a software engineer to relocate to San Jose or for a medical researcher to relocate to Boston—we are all poorer as a result.”

“zoning makes more environmentally friendly forms of urban growth effectively illegal. By banning developers from building up, zoning forces them to build out.”

“zoning assumes universal car ownership and all the emissions and traffic violence this entails.”

“zoning isn’t merely a good policy misapplied toward selfish ends. Zoning is a fundamentally flawed policy that deserves to be abolished. Set aside for a moment the debilitating local housing shortages, the stunted growth and innovation, the persistent racial and economic segregation, and the ever-expanding sprawl: The very concept of zoning—the idea that state planners can rationally separate land uses and efficiently allocate density—has repeatedly failed to materialize. Far from the fantastical device imagined by early 20th-century planners, zoning today has little to do with managing traditional externalities and works largely untethered from any guiding comprehensive plan.”

“Cities found ways to separate noxious uses and manage growth for thousands of years before the arrival of zoning, and they can do the same after zoning. Indeed, some American cities—including Houston, America’s fourth-largest city—already make land use planning work without zoning. To the extent that zoning has failed to address even our most basic concerns about urban growth over the past century, it’s incumbent on our generation to rekindle this lost wisdom and undertake the project of building out a new way of planning the American city.”

“the fact that zoning is only now turning 100 might speak to the fact that we shouldn’t take it for granted. A 100th anniversary is as good a time as any for a reevaluation”

“Zoning is not only ineffective in achieving its stated goals—it’s also unnecessary. In our focus on drawing district boundaries or listing out permitted uses, we have lost touch with the innumerable ways that cities organize themselves, from the natural use separation helped along by land markets to the bottom-up agreements formed by neighbors. Where these institutions fail, a robust set of impact regulations for new development and a civil service committed to managing—rather than stalling—growth would do a far better job than zoning at keeping neighbors happy and quality of life up. Now is the time to rediscover these lost traditions and start planning for what comes after zoning.”