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.

The war on zoning is a secret??!

There are a couple of things that need to go away from writing right now. 1) Analogies between the modern world and ancient Rome (or ancient Greece) that make no sense and 2) using “The War on X” to title anything. The first observation I credit to brilliant former student Peter McFerrin, who noted we should just ban people from making these analogies because most of them are entirely specious and usually self-serving. The second is self-serving, too; overly emotional metaphor that nicely exemplifies the logical fallacy, if-by-whisky. Oh, those liberals! They are AT WAR with the Constitution. There is a CULTURE WAR. Blah blah blah. Retch, Puke, Vomit.

No, war actually involves militaries. Somebody trying to change policies in a way you don’t like is not a war.

Before anybody says it, I don’t think there is a GOP war on women. But that doesn’t mean we’re not in a backlash, a serious one, or that the people leading it aren’t a-holes. It just means that the war metaphor has been over-used, and I’m tired of it.

SO this selection from the Atlantic Cities crossed my desk this morning: The Secret Conservative War On Zoning.. I don’t mean to be rude, but are you kidding me? Is the war a secret? Or are the conservatives secret? Every so often I wish that people in planning would engage in some serious reflexivity about their own biases, one of them being that the field attracts people who believe in progressive social change. There is nothing wrong with that: in fact, that sentiment strikes me as noble and compassionate in my students. But that doesn’t mean that it’s right all the time.

So the shopworn “war on” title combined with an assumed conservative bogeyman. Why conservatives would resent being cast in this role in public discourse is anybody’s guess.

The rest of the article doesn’t help me get over my original grump.

The American Legislative Exchange Council, the corporate lobbying group known for pushing the “Stand Your Ground” gun legislation that factored into the fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin in Florida, may be getting into a new line of business: planning and zoning.

Note the careful dodge: “may be getting into.” I love leads like that. And the emotional lead: Trayvon Martin.

The rest goes on to explain that ALEC has put “poison pill” language into model legislation that would to make local zoning much more difficult or impossible. Shocking! Lobbyists rolling legislation? Utterly shocking! How DARE THEY? Naive planners must be taken aback at the dirty pool out-maneuvering!

Of course, planners and environmental organizations have already set up their OWN pre-fab legislative models and language that contains their own regulatory agenda. But it’s right when WE do it, and wrong the Bad Guys do it. Three words: form-based codes. Environmental lobbies have promulgated these and their variants as God’s Own Truth in model legislation and policy. The idea that another group might be forming up in opposition to the values assumed in these regulations should hardly surprise us: it’s how American politics works. Planners and planning ideas, even zoning, do not get a free pass in the political realm, no matter how convinced we are of our own individual rightness and our opponents’ wrongness, ignorance, and bad faith.

Only conservatives hate regulation, after all, right? That’s why Democrat Jerry Brown is in the middle of deconstructing CEQA–not because it’s an over-reaching law, which it is, but because it might stop him from spending $3billion in federal funds on his pet luxury train project.

Going back to War on Zoning, Flint tells us that zoning fights are not new, and the American Planning Association has set up training to help planners…Read More »

Rachel Meltzer and my colleague Jenny Schuetz on Inclusionary Zoning

Meltzer, R. & Schuetz, J. (2010). What drives the diffusion of inclusionary zoning?Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, 29(3), 578-602.

Social scientists offer competing theories on what explains the policymaking process. These typically include economic rationalism, political competition or power struggles, and policy imitation of the kind that diffuses across spatially prox- imate neighbors. In this paper, we examine the factors that have influenced a recent local policy trend in California: inclusionary zoning (IZ). IZ programs require developers to make a certain percentage of the units within their market-rate resi- dential developments affordable to low- or moderate-income households. By 2007, 68 percent of jurisdictions in the San Francisco Bay Area had adopted some type of IZ policy. We test the relative importance of economic, political, and spatial fac- tors in explaining the rapid diffusion of IZ, across 100 cities and towns in the Bay Area. Consistent with an economic efficiency argument, results of hazard models provide some evidence that IZ is adopted in places with less affordable housing. However, political factors, such as partisan affiliation and the strength of afford- able housing nonprofits, are even more robust predictors of whether or not a local government adopts IZ. There is no evidence of spatial diffusion in the case of IZ adoption; jurisdictions are not, on average, responding to the behavior of their neighbors.

This manuscript is a nice exemplar for students interested in mixed methods. They have a set of hazards models that predict the adoption of inclusionary zoning, and they supplement those models with a very short case study of San Jose to illustrate some of their key points. I generally do not like shortie case studies, but this is nicely done and is offered for illustration; the authors do not overstate what the case means or shows.

So one of the key factors is having an affordability problem, which is good as we don’t need to be passing rules and policies places don’t need. Important to the passage of IZ are well-established housing nonprofits. The authors note that these nonprofits create an advocacy base for IZ and provide a group of stakeholders poised to engage in IZ implementation. But the fact that the nonprofits are well-established suggests that time matters: it takes time for people to recognize social problems, it takes time for nonprofits to form and become well-established, and it takes time to get things passed. Places where affordability problems have not been around awhile would have none of the above.

One of the things I wonder about concerns the IZ output. This study is just looking at whether local governments pass IZ rules. What would be interesting is the nature of those rules, and whether places in California–the location of the study–have passed IZ rules pre-emptively. That is, the state of California technically has a inclusionary housing rule–like it has a bunch of other rules it doesn’t always enforce but some times does. I had been thinking about IZ rules as the outcome of a strategic game where local council members in jurisdictions that have a problem with housing affordability pass some moderate attempt at IZ to preempt their nonprofits from bringing the state in, which would undermine local control. The result may more paper ordinances that do less than they otherwise would.


Zoning, Robert Scarano and the art of density

My colleague Richard Green has noted the usual story about sprawl and zoning going around the interwebs here and here. Richard clarifies that sprawl is not a market outcome, it relates to zoning.

Zoning may not be a market outcome, but it is an outcome of the urban political economy. If there is one thing that I learned as a professional planner: everybody loves density until it is proposed near them. Then a whole bunch of concerns, and some of them legitimate, arise about bringing in a bunch of strangers into an intimate residential setting, about crowding schools and other services like parking, etc.

That first question about neighborhood identity gets beat on pretty hard: density hawks like to dismiss such concerns as merely exclusionary. I can’t do that, though of course the effects are exclusionary.

People buy and move into neighborhoods believing those neighborhoods are one thing; market sorting works to some degree. Proposing to put a large project in the middle of the neighborhood represents social change, sometimes a big one. I’ve watched plenty of my planning colleagues over the years who were huge density hawks go ballistic over proposals to build density near them. “It’s out of context!” They say. Sure. So zoning is at its best about giving the collective some voice about context. Zoning by its nature excludes. At its worst, the control becomes exclusionary of the socially vulnerable.

Thus our structures for controlling context are racist and classist and reflect the interests of the powerful. Our neighborhoods are racist and classist, in turn, because our society is. We probably can not expect our material lives to be radically different from our society and culture because the former is a product of the later, to some degree.

Justin Davidson comments on the outcast architect, Robert Scarano Jr. in the Daily Intel. You can see Davidson doesn’t hold back: he dislikes the buildings, the way Scarano conducted himself, and, it seems, Sarano as a symbol of gentrification in New York during the Housing Boom.

What do you think? Is overbuilding a form of theft? Is Scarano doing any harm? Or is he a sort of a Robin Hood for density?

Building up and building density requires more art than Sarano applied, as it can overcome objections about the context of density. In the end, that’s the test of architecture: does it work as a building and space? Does it contribute to or detract from its context? Does it make you think? I’m not a person who thinks architecture should always be beautiful, but it should be more often than it is…

After looking up a few of his buildings, I have to agree with Davidson, ultimately. These are terrible buildings. In the case of the latter, it’s plopped into the middle of the Bowery, one of New York’s more interesting gentrification stories, and it’s a ghastly building– both cheap-looking and out of scale; the out of scale problem would be less of a problem were the first not true. The Bowery deserved better.

It is interesting that when you are found out lying about your buildings, you’re done practicing in New York. Because there comes a point where you can’t inspect every building tip top to basement the way you can in a Fresno or in a Des Moines. I’m normally all about challenging dumb rules–and many US zoning rules are dumb–but not in this case.