The communitarian case for zoning that planners do not talk about

If you are not reading Better Institutions by Shane Phillips, you should be. Shane is one of my former students, now graduated, and he’s very smart and passionate about cities. He’s one of LA’s leaders in planning, and Better Institutions is always worth a read.

Shane has been, like many of us in LA, concerned with the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative, and he’s been one of its leading critics, and he also writes land use is important in urbanism and urban reform. One of his pieces has gone viral, here, and I have some things in it I want to poke around with a bit, in which Shane castigates self-interested home-owners who oppose growth to leverage speculative gains in land value by contributing to a shortage. For those interested in reading about where this thinking comes in, you can learn more about it if you read about Homevoter Hypothesis by Bill Fischel.

This supply-side argument to favoring growth embodied in these assumptions is a favorite among market liberals and libertarians, and I’m generally ok with this part of the argument, mostly, save for a few quibbles. Back in the heyday of growth boundaries and anti-sprawl, I was one of those people who kept saying “Um, if we don’t build on the fringe, which I know is bad, terrible, and wrong, but if we don’t do that, we are going to be constraining supply and potentially putting upward pressures on housing prices.”

The answer was: “Oh, that won’t happen because we’ll do infill. Lots and Lots of infill. There’s plenty of excess capacity.”

Yes, yes, right of course, but where is that excess capacity and who is going to be dealing with it?

I responded: “But infill is really, really hard, and the places most likely to be subjected to redevelopment first are going to be lower income neighborhoods, Black neighborhoods, Latino neighborhoods with renters. What do we do about that?”

The answer was: “Oh, that won’t happen! That could never happen because people will understand the need to save the environment and include people who otherwise can’t afford to live close in to urban opportunities! And gentrification is *just a myth.*”

So I went away, worried. I’m not a land economist, after all, though I was trained by some damn good ones, and I have great faith in policy to alter the way markets function and in social marketing’s ability to alter tastes. And if there has been one thing that New Urbanists and their high-density growth peers have been good at, it’s social marketing.

But now in some respects in LA (and the rest of the coastal California), here we are.

There are multiple reasons why I think planners and market liberals like Phillips need to back off a little bit on assuming anti-growth sentiment stems from mere homeowner self-interest. I don’t buy that it’s an “evil Baby Boomers versus Wonderful, Urbanity-Loving Millenials” conflict either, as gratifying as it is for this here Gen-Xer to watch those groups blame each other. American suburbanization started long before the Boomers showed up. Nor am I convinced that homeowners necessarily just have one interest, financial, in zoning. Given that I am likely to get raked over the coals for this post, I want to repeat: the Homevoter Hypothesis is important to understanding urban politics and development. But it’s partial. That’s my argument.

At some point we should stop being shocked that people have interests, and then, gasp, seek to optimize on them in politics. Why it’s ok to both a) have market interests and b) act on those, but not okay to have political interests, let alone act on them, is a bit beyond me. I don’t see anybody else turning down dividends or profits, and I’m not sure California homeowners fall into problematic luck egalitarianism the way that their critics assume they do, but that’s a long, drawn-out land valuation argument that takes me too far afield to sort today. And I’m not sure of the reasoning. But still.

Anyway, while home voters might indeed be voting their financial interests, there is a lot wrapped up in zoning that isn’t necessarily about speculative gains to real estate. Renters, too, tend to oppose new development, and while we can try to act like they don’t know what’s good for them, I think they share concerns about neighborhood changes, residential stability, and place identity with homeowners, and that coalition is much, much tougher to beat than simply assuming that zoning conflicts are strictly class-based conflicts about assets between owners and newcomers.

If you look at ‘exclusion’ as a big, social and political phenomenon instead of just in terms of local zoning and development spats, the arguments for exclusion combine both communitarian concerns about identity and stability and self-determination with economic concerns. Just as with zoning conflicts, conflicts over immigration can be reduced to spats over economic self-interest–the “you took my job” and “your kid requires I pay more for the local public school.”

But those are not the only objection made to immigration. They may not even be the most commonly held objection. Other objections, important ones, are the desire that individuals have to maintain a specific culture and make-up of the political community. Now, in the US, there are strong racist underpinnings to resistance to immigration from Mexico and other parts of Latin America, but America’s history of immigration has always been contested. The Irish and Italians were opposed because they were perceived, among other things, as labor agitators and Catholics, etc. etc. Immigrants change things, and change is, for the average progressive, a natural part of the world. For the average conservative, change is not necessarily desirable nor good.

Thus communitarians’ arguments for exclusion occur at just about every level of political community, and those communitarian arguments probably deserve more attention than they get in discussions over zoning.

Spelled out more explicitly, the communitarian arguments, which in planning have paralleled the cheerleading for infill and leading to rather major conflicts internal to the development process, have assumed that neighborhoods should have some level of self-determination in democratic conflicts over development. As it turns out, unleashing democratic preferences means you may not like that preference, and one of the strong preferences people have seems to be that their neighborhoods stay much as they are right at the moment, or with changes that they, themselves, guide. If neighborhoods have self-determination, why can’t they they use that self-determination to use zoning to enable the exercise of freedom of association? The ability to exclude is a pretty big deal in communitarian frameworks because it enables the formation of specific associations that are essential to individuals’ ability to a) exercise liberty, conscience, and self-expression and b) form intimate attachments of their own choosing. (This is thinking of Stuart White, btw). Exclusion may be more than justified from public good perspective to the degree that it enables those things. Christopher Heath Wellman notes that group membership determines a major part of self-conception and identity, and thus changing the members of any given group changes an essential part of identity. Exclusion for communitarians is necessary to preserve distinct group character, group trust, and mutual identification. To the degree that place is part of group identity, the ability to exclude others from that place supports group stability in crucial ways.

Apologists for exclusion have the burden of trying to show that these things they see as essential to human life and community hinge on being able to keep people out. Opponents of exclusion have a similar evidence burden to show that the things that communitarians prize about exclusion do not, in fact, require the ability to pick and choose what group membership changes occur and which do not.

Urbanists and those who argue against exclusion usually do so based on justice or efficiency arguments. Other than the inherent difficulties of separate-but-equal arguments, why can’t people who wish to control their own associations discharge their duties to distributive justice by doing everything required to help outsiders where they currently live? Justice might obtain in many ways. (I personally am not convinced by separate-but-equal arguments, but those are still out there being made, and there is a good core of commonsense value in stemming the movement into particular places by resourcing other places and making them great, too, along with the demands of global justice.)

Libertarians fall back onto the idea that zoning is an illiberal intervention into personal property rights and freedom of movement. But I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about libertarianism and freedom of association and I can’t reconcile the conflict from within that paradigm. My ability to limit who has access to me may be a strong preference, and the dictates of liberty and self-ownership mean that I should be able to exercise exclusion if I so choose via voluntary associations and contracts. Liberty of movement simultaneously requires that I should be able to move wherever. (I mean, not in your house, but in your general area). There are, in other words, dueling liberties and I see no credible argument for siding with one over the other that doesn’t fall into simple assertions of market power.

These debates can quickly become circular and irresolvable, but I’m worried that planning and urbanism are not really taking on communitarian claims and neighborhood self-determination arguments *at all* in contemporary zoning debates. Instead, it’s urbanists with personal preferences for urbanism saying “But cities are great and we have to save the environment by not sprawling!” and the market liberal followers of Ed Glaesar making supply-side arguments for affordability.

Trust me, as somebody who reads Glenn Beck’s Agenda 21 novels so that you don’t have to, not everybody sees the environment or justice as sufficient public policy rationales for trying to force people into accepting changes they don’t want or living in neighborhoods they don’t like. Dismissiveness vis-a-vis the communitarian arguments risks making planners seem like clueless progressives who don’t value families or communities at the same time they purport to value neighborhoods–but only certain neighborhoods, the ones that meet their approval. This is a chronic problem in planning, and it’s one we should probably be thinking about.