“Zoning is not a good institution gone bad. … On the contrary, zoning is a mechanism of exclusion designed to inflate property values, slow the pace of new development, segregate cities by race and class, and enshrine the detached single-family house as the exclusive urban ideal.” So writes M. Nolan Gray in Arbitrary Lines: How Zoning Broke the American City and How to Fix It.

This quote is a strong condemnation of zoning. Does Gray, a scholar affiliated with the Mercatus Center, successfully make his case? He does. I confess that I was somewhat convinced of this before cracking the book. Decades ago, I read a 77-page article by legal scholar Bernard Siegan, who made the case that Houston, the one major city in America that had avoided zoning, was doing well. Gray is quite familiar with Houston and, indeed, devotes a whole chapter to laying out in what ways Houston does well.

Gray does much more than simply discuss Houston. He delves into the history of zoning, which began about a century ago, to show that the racial and class segregation it creates and the property values it inflates are not accidental byproducts of a well-intentioned process gone wrong. They are, instead, what the early proponents of zoning intended. To put it in the current vernacular, for the early proponents of zoning, these bad effects are a feature, not a bug. Gray makes a strong case for making zoning less bad and a further strong case for ending it. Unfortunately, he also recommends that local governments impose price controls on a portion of the new housing stock.

These are the opening 3 paragraphs of David R. Henderson, “The Case for Abolishing Zoning,” my fairly comprehensive review of M. Nolan Gray’s outstanding book Arbitrary Lines. It appears in the Fall 2022 issue of Regulation.

Another excerpt:

When I used to visit my maternal grandparents in their 700-square foot house in Winnipeg in the early 1960s, I would almost always run into their tenant, Mr. Woolridge. He was a nice old retired man who rented a bedroom that was about 40 square feet and shared my grandparents’ kitchen and bathroom. Such arrangements, which Gray calls “single-room occupancies” (SROs), were somewhat common then for low-income owners and tenants. They are now illegal almost everywhere. SROs, notes Gray, served “as the bottom rung of the housing market.” Prohibiting them, he writes, “has served no small role in driving the contemporary homelessness crisis facing cities.”

I have very fond memories of Mr. Woolridge; he was kind of like an extra grandfather. I agree with Gray’s bottom line on this: I think this prohibition is one of the major contributors to homelessness.

Read the whole thing.