By David M. Greenwald
The more I read and learn about single-family zoning, the more I realize that, while this is a battle line this year, both sides have actually overblown its importance. On the one hand, changing the zoning to allow for duplex and split lots is not really going to change the character of a lot of neighborhoods. And on the other side of that—perhaps even because of that—changing the zoning is not going to solve the housing crisis.
I tend to favor allowing rezoning because it will add some housing. But if duplexes or fourplexes are done correctly, it should really have a minimal impact on neighbors. Cities just have to be diligent about size, mass and scale.
I appreciated Matthew Yglesias blog entry on Thursday.
Yglesias worries that this kind of message is completely misleading and will have a determinantal impact on reform.
He pointed out: “Most Americans live in single-family homes, and many of those who don’t aspire to. If people believe that zoning reform is a critique of those homes or the desire to live in them, zoning reform is likely to fail.”
It reminds me of a comment made on the Vanguard that the push for reforming single-family neighborhoods somehow suggested there was a belief that people didn’t aspire to single-family homes.
Of course they do. But for many—especially in California, especially in the expensive portions of California—that dream is out of range.
Yglesias also fears “proponents of zoning reform may not work hard enough to correct the misperception.”
He writes that “a significant minority of the American population does not live in detached single-family homes. And many of the people in that minority have a strong affective preference for neighborhoods full of apartments and rowhouses and have developed a resentment over the years of the normative status of the detached single-family home in the United States.”
Yglesias notes: “What exacerbates my worries on this score is that in many experiences, a decent share of zoning reformers feel insecure about adhering to what’s basically a free market regulatory position. Politically speaking, the most important thing is to appeal to older normies with moderate views.”
I get a little lost at this point in his piece. But up until that point it was pretty solid and based on what I have seen in the debate so far it is reasonably accurate.
The problem here is he wants to turn this into an issue of choice.
“It’s good for people to be able to choose,” he writes. And then compares this to cars.
But Iglesias here I think misses the boat. This really isn’t an issue of choice. It is an issue of affordability. Comparing it to cars might work. Hey I might endeavor to buy an expensive flashy luxury vehicle, but I can’t afford the monthly payments. Thus people of modest means will buy a good car in the $15,000 to $30,000 range, rather than the $50,000 to $100,000 range, for example.
Or if I am low income, I am either buying a low end new car, or more likely a used car.
Yglesias argues: “Except in the housing context where we refuse to let people decide what they want to do. City planning is extremely prescriptive, and documents are full of assertions about what is and isn’t ‘suitable’ to various areas as if upon moving to D.C. they confiscated your SUV and forced you to buy a small hatchback.”
This is where we get into problems though. People will argue, if you can’t afford Davis, move to a location that is cheaper. Makes sense. Or you can’t afford this neighborhood, you move into another neighborhood. That also makes intuitive sense.
The problem of course is that is what we have done for the last 70 years or so since the landmark Shelley v. Kraemer struck down racially restrictive covenants. Single-family homes have become a new covenant—not based on race, but based on economics.
We end up with neighborhoods that are heavily racially segregated not because we still have restrictive real estate covenants, but rather because we have zoned them as such that people of lower economic classes simply can’t live there.
The other problem here is that this issue cuts right across normal political cleavages. You see it in liberal/progressive portions of Berkeley.
“The war on single-family homes is a war on families.”
This is not a liberal versus conservative issue. In fact, it’s just the opposite. Most of the people who live in the areas impacted by reform live in deep blue areas where there are very few people on the right. Instead this is an economic issue. The haves versus have-nots. Those who are perhaps upper middle class against those who are working class.
It is therefore one of economics but also proximity.
Yglesias wants to address this problem here through a strong switch to property rights.
He makes some interesting points here worth considering.
He writes: “You are allowed to build an apartment building that has a ‘no pets’ rule and you are allowed to build a gated community that’s only for childless old people. And both of those things exist. In a world without exclusionary zoning, it will still be possible for private developers to build subdivisions that have specific internal governance rules.”
Yglesias problably goes further than I would here.
He writes: “[J]ust as we don’t in general let people veto their neighbors’ decisions about pets and kids, we shouldn’t in general let people veto their neighbors’ decisions about what kind of structures can be built on their land.”
My problem is that while he accepts concessions for both safety and environmental protections, he doesn’t seem to take seriously the need to control size and scope.
He concludes here: “If you’re a homeowner, giving up your right to veto what your neighbors do would be a significant concession. But in exchange, you would get the right to do what you want without being subject to a veto.”
Here is his frame for the NIMBY v. YIMBY fight.
He writes: “YIMBY says that you should not, subjectively, object to projects in your neighborhood. That you should say yes. A reform agenda says it’s fine for you to dislike new multifamily housing in your neighborhood just like I am allowed to be sad that a neighborhood coffee place I liked closed and was replaced by a vape shop. What I am not allowed to do is prevent the vape shop from opening or prevent the coffee place from closing. I think everyone in the neighborhood misses the coffee shop. The problem is we didn’t miss it enough to buy enough coffee to keep them in business, especially since we have other good coffee shops.
“The key to this is that strong property rights have upsides for homeowners themselves,” he adds. “It’s not just that your neighbor can build an ADU and you can’t stop him, it’s that you can build an ADU and your neighbor can’t stop you.”
Which is fine but I think most people agree there have to be lines. This debate is really about moving where the lines are. That’s fine.
I don’t think you win this argument by knocking out the lines entirely. I think you win the argument by getting enough people agreeing that we need to redraw where the current lines are. And getting people to realize that redrawing lines makes for a fairer community which will really not personally impact a lot of people in a detrimental way.