Markets and Zoning
In the old days, cities became denser as they grew larger, especially in the central area close to the downtown. Many of our newer cities, however, have remained fairly low density even as they’ve grown to be quite large. San Jose and San Diego are good examples.
Houston is an exception to this rule. Over the past few decades, it’s grown into one of our largest cities, with a metropolitan area population of over 7 million. Unlike other Sunbelt cities, it has relatively little regulation of home building. As a result, close in neighborhoods have become much more dense, even as Houston’s suburbs remain dominated by single-family homes. Houston provides low cost housing for people with a wide variety of preferences.
Some housing experts at NewGeography are opposed to this approach, favoring zoning regulations that short circuit market forces.
Yet if people have their own aspirations, those who designate themselves as knowing best—notably urban planners, large financial institutions, tech companies, and academics—prefer another scenario for ordinary people. Rather than allow the market to reveal what people want, there has been a mounting effort, here and in most of the developed world, to shoehorn people into dense development and, in some cases, ban zoning entirely for single-family homes.
Notice what they’ve done here. They’ve dressed up support for anti-free market policies that restrict people’s ability to build housing as somehow reflecting “the market”. Terms like “market” and “ban” are used in an almost Orwellian sense. It is zoning that “bans” people from using their property as they’d like to. It is zoning that prevents market forces from delivering the sort of housing that the public wants. It would be like saying free trade policies ban people from buying American. Or the First Amendment bans people from cancelling unpopular speakers.
Opponents of zoning don’t wish to “shoehorn” people into dense areas, they wish to allow people to choose the sort of housing that best suits their needs. For some people that will be high-rise condos in the central city. For others, it will be single-family homes in the suburbs. The free market is the best way of determining what sort of housing density is appropriate. In general, the free market will deliver more density in central areas and less density in outlying areas.
Zoning has only been around for about a century. Thank God it did not exist when our country was first developed, otherwise we never would have built those wonderful high-rise neighborhoods in places like Manhattan and lakefront Chicago. Indeed, today even the dense townhouse neighborhoods in central Boston cannot be built in most cities—including metro Boston. Ironically, Houston is one of the few places in America where it is legal to build a neighborhood like Boston’s Beacon Hill or Back Bay.