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Reblogged:Contra Zoning? Not Really.

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Over at Future of Capitalism is an interesting blog post regarding zoning. The New York Times, it notes, has just come out in favor of relaxed zoning laws:

The most helpful policy for people in small towns could be to relax zoning rules in dense cities like New York and San Francisco, so that more affordable housing could be built to receive newcomers from rural Wisconsin or Kentucky, and they wouldn't need the income of an investment banker or a computer scientist to afford to live there. [bold added]
The ensuing commentary seems to take this at face value and makes the following interesting point, with which I substantially agree:
zones.jpg
Areas where property rights are not fully respected by the government are shown by shading. (Image via Wikipedia.)
Telling someone who already spent a lot of money on a house in New York, San Francisco, or a Boston suburb that they should accept those risks to help out "newcomers from rural Wisconsin or Kentucky" is not necessarily a big political winner. There may be other ways to frame this in ways that are more politically palatable, but it seems to me that's the challenge on this issue at the moment. One possible pitch would be something like, "We can build some taller buildings in ways that won't ruin your neighborhood but will actually make it better by providing the density to support better restaurants, cafes, and stores and the tax base to support better public transportation and public schools. And if you look at other dense neighborhoods, they actually have pretty high property values, because people like the walkable amenities." That's more an appeal to self-interest than to altruism. [bold added]
I completely agree with Future of Capitalism that appealing to self-interest could more successfully pave the way to "relax zoning rules" than altruism. This could help those who would want to try relocating to a city to improve their fortunes. However, the appeal to self-interest needs to start sooner and the implications taken much farther than the Times would ever go, or care to admit.

The Times does not speak of, say, relaxing zoning on the way towards its abolition. It also does not even mention the idea of property rights, which zoning violates and it is the government's (actual) job to protect. Consider also the fact that the reason this call for allegedly relaxed zoning is to do something the government ought not be doing. The reasons for the pitch Future of Capitalism sees as necessary hint at how this will play out: Since zoning subsumes many of the purposes other legal mechanisms, such as restrictive covenants, ought to serve, people understandably make expensive real estate decisions based on the assumption that zoning will still be around to "protect" their investments. This is why it becomes necessary to worry that people who buy houses with the expectation that they won't have to live in the shadow of a high-rise might not like the idea of "relaxed zoning." So, while it may be true that city dwellers can benefit from higher density, the real problem is that zoning laws can be changed at the drop of a hat in ways that restrictive covenants can not. Fighting for "relaxed zoning" rather than a program to abolish zoning altogether is thus meaningless. The Times poses as capitalist only so it can keep zoning intact, and turn around and use it as a tool to allegedly help poor hillbillies while actually running roughshod over the city slickers.

If the Times deserves any credit, it might be for admitting that zoning harms the poor. But even that much credit is debatable: Zoning, by violating property rights, harms everyone. (Here is one another example.) As such, it should be opposed root and branch, and we should be wary of apparent changes of heart, such as that by the Times. Mere opposition to a bad policy (or part of one, or how one is used) is nowhere near as important as the reasons for that opposition. Zoning has always been excused by appeals to the fiction of the "public interest," and this "relaxation" is only in the sense convenient to those who claim to speak for "the public."

I agree that we should appeal to the self-interest of the electorate on the subject of zoning -- because repealing it will better protect property rights: Landowners who want low density can guarantee low density through contracts, and developers who wish to build high rises will be able to do so without political opposition or the threat of same.

If the Times really wanted to help the poor, it would go the extra mile to argue for a careful and systematic phasing-out of all zoning laws. In doing so, it would pave the way for increased prosperity for all, by way of enabling all of us to put our own property to the use we judge best.

-- CAV

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