Free to build
By Scott Sumner
You would think that if conservatives could agree about anything it would be zoning reform. Making it easier to build new housing would increase freedom (something libertarians like), increase economic growth (something businesspeople like), and help lower class Americans afford homes (something all conservatives like.)
Recently, however, a split has developed in the conservative ranks, as exemplified by a recent National Review article by Stanley Kurtz. Here he criticizes the idea of having the federal government pressure cities to make it easier to build housing:
They will lose control of their own zoning and development, they will be pressured into a kind of de facto regional-revenue redistribution, and they will even be forced to start building high-density low-income housing. The latter, of course, will require the elimination of single-family zoning. With that, the basic character of the suburbs will disappear. At the very moment when the pandemic has made people rethink the advantages of dense urban living, the choice of an alternative will be taken away.
Before getting into zoning, let me acknowledge that the specific complaint here has some merit. It’s not obvious that the federal government has any business telling local governments to reform zoning. (Is this more like schooling, where local control is best, or more like free speech and interstate commerce, where you want the federal government to guarantee certain freedoms? I don’t know.)
But Kurtz doesn’t stop with defensible complaints about the merits of federalism; he also disagrees with the claim that zoning reforms to boost density would be welfare improving. And that argument is very hard to make.
Residents often complain about new apartment complexes because it increases traffic and brings in lower income residents. But these arguments are very weak. In aggregate, greater density reduces traffic. People must drive farther in less dense suburbs. And lower income people need a place to live. Surely its better to allow them to live closer to job opportunities than to force them into slums, or even homelessness.
Nor would these proposals “destroy” the suburbs. Even the NYC metro area—which is a sort of poster child for dystopian density in the minds of many zoning fans—the vast majority of the region is devoted to low density suburbs, including much of Long Island, northern New Jersey, Westchester County and southwest Connecticut. When people hear the term ‘New York’ they think of Manhattan, but there are plenty of nice suburban communities for people who prefer that sort of living.
You might argue that removing zoning would turn American suburbs into New York City-style dystopias, but there are far to few people in America to densify more than a tiny, tiny fraction of suburbia.
And some densification is optimal. Suppose Midtown and the Upper East and West Sides of Manhattan had not been allowed to densify, because residents who liked the formerly quiet neighborhoods had used NIMBY lawsuits to hold up development. Think about how much less impressive New York City would be today.
The goal should not be to have all dense cities, or all sprawling suburbs, but a mix of the two. Zoning reform helps to allow America to develop organically, according to the wishes of the public. Each family will move to the sort of area that they prefer.
Conservatives often oppose progressive policies that are intended to help the poor. In many cases, conservatives are correct to oppose those initiatives, as government involvement in the economy often does more harm than good. But if conservatives were then to turn around and support government regulations that made it hard to build affordable apartments, even though those regulations reduced freedom and reduced economic growth, all because growth might inconvenience some affluent people who like things to always stay the same, then there are going to have to accept the fact that their motives will be questioned. (I say “some affluent people”, because I favor more density in Orange County.)
Isn’t the conservative view that higher minimum wages reduce freedom and economic growth? OK, but doesn’t zoning also reduce freedom and growth? Or is something else motivating conservative opposition to higher minimum wages?
I know why I oppose higher minimum wages, but I’m no longer confident I know why other conservatives do.
Of course many on the left oppose new low-density suburban developments. I also disagree with that view. So I’m not taking sides on the overall housing density debate, just the specific idea of relaxing zoning rules to allow greater density.
Some progressives have a vision for how people should live—densify. Some conservatives have a very different vision for how people should live—suburban sprawl. My vision is freedom.
PS. The American Conservative has an article by Charles Marohn that points to numerous federal regulations that have subsidized suburban sprawl. Stanley Kurtz mostly ignores those market distortions when he advocates a hands off approach by the federal government.