Guest Commentary: Zoning: Planning, Suggestion, or Baloney?

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by Mark Dempsey

California’s recent housing affordability crisis leads to some conversations about zoning and NIMBYism (see the Davis Vanguard‘s The Expansion of NYMBYISM into Zoning). But looking for the causes of real estate dysfunction or the traces of racism in zoning alone is far too modest. The American attack on the lesser races and religions has been multi-generational, and multi-dimensional. Yes, zoning is often racist baloney, but it’s just the appetizer.

For an example of how deeply racist the U.S. has been, consider how Harry Truman proposed single-payer healthcare for the U.S, but was denied congressional approval because the Dixiecrats were concerned they would have to integrate their public hospitals, perhaps even their blood banks. For party purists concerned that Bernie Sanders isn’t a “real Democrat,” take note that the Dixiecrats were indeed real Democrats, and were essential to FDR’s New Deal–an otherwise noble scheme that included “Redlining”–restricting government-backed mortgage financing to the lesser races and their neighborhoods

Redlining and its sister strategy, deed restrictions that prevent selling property even to Jews, much less people of color, have long been declared illegal in our modern age, but the effects linger far past their inception. One UC Davis professor (Jesus Hernandez) has maps demonstrating even more recent public expenditure has avoided the poor side of town, showering public benefit, transit innovation, parks, recreation, etc. on the wealthy while pinching pennies for the poor.

Zoning itself is a scam, and as practiced in local governments it could not possibly be implemented, except in service to plausible deniability. In Life and Death of the Great American City  Jane Jacobs says “Modern planning is positively neurotic in its willingness to embrace what does not work and ignore what does…It’s a form of advanced superstition like [19th century] medicine that believed bleeding patients would cure them.”

What our region’s “planning” departments practice is zoning based on uses. Zoning typically originates with a group of citizens sitting around a map of their neighborhood. One will point to some undeveloped land, saying “This should be residences.” Another may disagree: “It should be a shopping center.” … and the debate continues until the citizens and their planning staffer agree on a zoning designation. Such zoning decisions often precede actual development by a decade or more. When it’s built, will the market want apartments or shopping? Will it want something else? Builders agonize about what the market wants six months in advance of committing to build something. Accuracy a decade in the future is not something we can expect.

Yet the zoning scam continues. One parcel near my house had four such “plans”: Regional Blueprint, County General Plan, Community Plan and a “Special Planning Agreement.” Which one was actually built? Answer: None. Such “plans” barely rise to the level of suggestions.

The consequence of this specious “planning” is the churn of rezones”–requests to change existing zoning. A local architect tells me that in 2006, the Sacramento region’s governments saw developers of  35,000 acres propose rezone.

We could have zoning that actually planned something if it were “form-based”–proposing big buildings here, medium-sized ones there, and little ones yonder. Then the market would decide what uses builders built, and we could plan and size infrastructure decades in advance to match the intensity of development.

Unfortunately, many traditional affordable housing solutions have been squashed by the collusion of finance and “planning.”  Where are the boarding houses, for one example? And what about residences above retail in all those shopping centers? These are classic patterns that serve their residents, but are scarce except in old neighborhoods–the ones you can’t afford to live in now because they are so treasured.

Unfortunately, we build our cities now for investors, not for their inhabitants.


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Disclaimer: the views expressed by guest writers are strictly those of the author and may not reflect the views of the Vanguard, its editor, or its editorial board.

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