The Zoning Straight-Jacket

In a new paper, Robert Ellickson makes a simple but important point: local land-use zoning freezes land use into place preventing land from moving from low-value to high-value uses even over many decades.

Recall the neighborhood where you spent your childhood. For most Americans, it would have been a neighborhood of detached single-family houses.My thesis in this Article is simple: if you were to visit that same neighborhood decades from now, it would remain virtually unchanged. One reason is economic: structures typically are built to last. But a second reason, and my focus here, is the impact of law. The politics of local zoning, a form of public land use regulation that has become ubiquitous in the United States during the past century, almost invariably works to freeze land uses in a neighborhood of houses.

…The zoning strait-jacket binds a large majority of urban land in the United States. Los Angeles and Chicago, two of the nation’s densest central cities, permit the building of only a detached house on, respectively, 75% and 79% of the areas they zone for residential use. In suburban areas, the percentage typically is far higher. In a companion study of zoning practices of thirty-seven suburbs in Silicon Valley, Greater New Haven, and Greater Austin, I found that, in the aggregate, these municipalities had set aside 91% of their residentially zoned land (71% of their total land area) exclusively for detached houses.

…Absent overly strict regulation, suppliers of goods in a market economy are able to adapt to changes in supply and demand conditions. The freezing of land uses in a broad swath of urban America prevents housing developers from responding to changes in consumer tastes about where and how to live.

I’m in India and they have similar problem, except in India it’s agricultural land that is frozen in place and made difficult to transform to new uses (in the process depriving farmers of the true value of one of their only assets and creating opportunities for regulatory arbitrage that politically-connected special interests exploit by buying at the farm price, obtaining approvals to convert that other cannot obtain and then selling at the much higher post-conversion price.)

Freezing agricultural land in place seems backward because ubanization is clearly India’s future but it’s no less backward than what has happened in the United States. In both cases, an important right in the land bundle was expropriated and collectivized and the market process of creative destruction impeded.


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