“Zoning is not a good institution gone bad. … Rather, zoning is an exclusionary mechanism designed to inflate property values, slow the pace of new development, segregate cities by race and class, and enshrine the detached single-family home as the exclusive urban ideal. So writes Mr. Nolan Gray in Arbitrary lines: how zoning broke the American city and how to fix it.
This quote is a strong condemnation of zoning. Gray, an academic affiliated with the Mercatus Center, succeeds in defending his point of view? He does. I admit that I was a little convinced before cracking the book. Decades ago, I read a 77-page article by legal scholar Bernard Siegan, who claimed that Houston, the only major city in America to avoid zoning, was doing well. Gray knows Houston well and, indeed, devotes an entire chapter to explaining how Houston does well.
Gray does more than just discuss Houston. It 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 zoning. a well-intentioned process gone wrong. These are rather the intentions of the first proponents of zoning. To put it in today’s vernacular, for early proponents of zoning, these bad effects were a feature, not a bug. Gray makes a strong case for making zoning less bad and another strong case for ending it. Unfortunately, he also recommends that local governments impose price controls on some of the new housing stock.
These are the first 3 paragraphs of David R. Henderson, “Arguments in favor of abolishing zoning», my fairly comprehensive review of Mr. Nolan Gray’s excellent book Arbitrary lines. He appears in the Fall 2022 issue of Regulation.
When I visited my maternal grandparents in their 700 square foot house in Winnipeg in the early 1960s, I almost always ran into their tenant, Mr. Woolridge. He was a nice old retiree who rented a room of about 40 square feet and shared my grandparents’ kitchen and bathroom. Such arrangements, which Gray calls “single room occupancies” (SRO), were quite common at the time for low-income landlords and tenants. They are now illegal almost everywhere. ORS, Gray notes, served “as the bottom end of the housing market.” Banning them, he writes, “has played a significant role in driving the contemporary homelessness crisis facing cities.”
I have very fond memories of Mr. Woolridge; he was like an extra grandfather. I agree with Gray’s bottom line on this: I think this ban is one of the biggest contributors to homelessness.
Read it the totality.