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.

A Timeline of the Chavez Ravine and Dodgers Stadium events for @USCPrice Rawjee Family Student Conversations

Some quick and dirty notes for my Rawjee Family Student Conversations at USC Price with the students on Chavez Ravine, so that I can be useful to them. Please feel free to correct–it’s very sloppy as I am in hurry.

  • up to 1950’s Mexican families, facing discrimination in most of the Los Angeles housing market, create a sustained community–a “Poor Man Shangra-La” as it is called in multiple references. It was self-contained in many ways; residents had their own churches and many grew their own food. (There was also livestock kept). The area consisted of three general districts La Loma, Palo Verde, and Bishop.
  • WWII and post-WWII Los Angeles experience tremendous new population growth, and the City begins to look for places to build. The 300-acre site in the center of Los Angeles was, to outsiders, an obvious choice.
  • 1949 The Federal Housing Act of 1949 granted money to cities from the federal government to build public housing projects.
  • and Los Angeles Mayor Fletcher Bowron voted and approved a housing project containing 10,000 new units, with Chavez Ravine being a central part of the new development plans. Much of the housing was shanty construction, and housing authority planners viewed the construction as unsanitary and unsafe. City of Los Angeles housing authority representative Tom Wilkinson was a central actor in the Plan.
  • Richard Neutra and Robert Alexander develop a plan for infill development (Elysian Park Heights) to house 3,300 families in a sprawling complex of 24, 13-story towers and 163 two-story garden apartments, where the families of Chavez Ravine could be housed. The residents were supposed to have first choice among these units.
  • In July 1950, all residents of Chavez Ravine received letters from the city telling them that they would have to sell their homes in order to make the land available for the proposed Elysian Park Heights.
  • The city began buying property and using eminent domain to push families out. An coalition emerged in LA Politics between conservative private development interests and Mexican families furious at their displacement. Mike Davis reported in City of Quartz that the buy-outs were shady.
  • In 1952, Frank Wilkinson, the assistant director of the Los Angeles City Housing Authority was questioned by the House Un-American Activities Committee. He was sentenced to one year in jail for refusing to cooperate with the committee. Five other Housing Authority employees were fired.
  • By this time, virtually all of the families had been removed and their homes razed, though some hold-outs remained in what would be called “The Battle of Chavez Ravine The property would stay vacant for nearly 10 years.
  • 1953 The City Counsel tried to back out of its contract with the federal government to provide housing; it went to court, and LA lost.
  • Also in 1953 conservative Norris Poulson won the mayor’s office using the Chavez Ravine controversy as a platform; he promised to the vowing to stop the housing project and other examples of “un-American” spending.
  • With Norris’ intervention, the feds would relent and sell the land back to the city for a low price on the condition that the land be used for “public purpose.”
  • 1957 Mayor Norris Paulson, Supervisor Kenneth Hahn, and Councilwoman Rosalind Wyman put together an offer for the Dodgers on behalf of the City of Los Angeles, including what was a privately owned, 56,000-seat stadium at the confluence of several major freeways surrounded by 16,000 parking spaces. (from O’Malley Was Right) It’s a question to me if whether this sale actually
  • 1958 Taxpayers Committee for Yes on Baseball, which was approved by Los Angeles voters on June 3, 1958 that the Dodgers were able to acquire 352 acres (1.42 km²) of Chavez Ravine from the City of Los Angeles. (This, too, was an ugly political fight, with Poulson getting accused of taking bribes and making money off the deal.)
  • Dodgers Stadium would not open for a few years yet–the Dodgers played in the Coliseum until the field opened.

Additional resources:

KCRW’s Coverage of Richard Neutra and Robert Alexander’s plan for public housing

chavez ravine la historia de un pueblo fantasma en trinchera de palabras

The Provisional City: Los Angeles Stories of Architecture and Urbanism
By Dana Cuff (The MIT Press, 2002)

Chavez Ravine 1949 by Don Nomarck

PBS Independent Lens documentary Chavez Ravine

The Rawjee Family Student Conversations at USC Price
This conversation series provides undergraduate students the opportunity to interact with a variety of community leaders in the Los Angeles area. Students gain new perspectives on important social issues, cultivate new interests and passions, discover potential career opportunities, and create lasting friendships with their peers and mentors. Through these enrichment opportunities, undergraduate students have met with city managers, debated ballot initiatives, addressed health policy issues, and toured the Los Angeles River. Learn more here about what we are up to with undergraduates: here.

I’m having trouble writing about Los Angeles’ “Neighborhood Integrity Initiative”

Because I haaaaaaaaaaate so much.

Here is the LA Times story on it.

When I write about something, I try to force myself to understand what is going on before I formulate conclusions. Now, that’s a pretty lofty idea, and I fail all the time. I often write normative theory, and normative theory is…normative. People should get excited and passionate about things like justice and equity.

But this time out, I’m having the same trouble as I had with Chapter 6 and Stand Your Ground. I haaaaaate. Haaaaaaate so hard.

Somebody tell me to straighten up and put my big-girl social science pants on.

Nothing would be the same again

September 11, 2001, terrorists committed the mass murder of 2,750 people in New York. To say that the United States is still wounded would be an understatement. In the subsequent years, the scarred site where the World Trade Center once stood has become case study in public morning.

2,750 people.

So it’s a good day to reflect on the debate surrounding the proposed mosque at Ground Zero. Those opposed say the proposal been a “slap in the face” to victims; those in favor cite the US tradition of religious freedom, and the need for religious toleration.

I don’t have any real ways of reconciling the two views.

But I do have a question.

If 400 feet away from the ground zero site–not the site of the two towers themselves, but 400 feet of the border of the entire area slotted for redevelopment–is not far away enough, then how far would be enough? A mile? Two? Those are long distances in New York. If 400 feet is a slap in the face, then how about 1000 feet? What is the right buffer?

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