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.


Wait until someone writes how much farm land is also frozen through zoning. And the hurdles that land developers need to jump through to get all those empty fields classified as suitable for building detached homes on.

There just might be a GMU founder with a bit of experience in this area, actually. One who successfully unfroze large amounts of farmland so it could be then frozen into large tracts of single family homes.

Can you point to evidence for that? My experience is the opposite; the rate of farmland conversion has alarmed agriculture advocates for a couple decades now. In fact, every time I travel through the Midwest, the metro areas have seemingly added yet another ring of suburbs on former farms.

This is true. While it takes effort to rezone agricultural land, there is definitely a process to follow, and land use experts are often horrified of the consequential urban sprawl it creates.

I lived in Champaign, IL while in school and that city was a great example of the problems caused by rezoning agricultural land. A few decades ago a big developer got a big track of land rezoned and used the cheap land to create a bunch of housing and retail away from the city center. The city had to then provide services to this development, including increased road capacity, utilities, schools, etc. Once the area took off and started becoming more expensive, a developer decided that it would be better to build another huge development on more agricultural land, even farther from the city center. So, the city then had to again provide services to this area, while dealing with the deflation of the last area caused by the newer, hotter area. When I left, the city was debating the next, even farther out development, while also debating how to deal with schools with low enrollment in the areas that were being abandoned. I do not believe the city had the population growth to justify all of the new development, but because of the university, there was enough population turnover that new developments always had an edge.

Seems like there is a problem in how city services are priced as well as land use regulations added to the usual problem of non-pricing of of street and road use and congestion.

Thanks for finally writing about >The Zoning Straight-Jacket
- Marginal REVOLUTION <Loved it!

Interesting. And I'm guessing that was land so fertile it was telling them exactly what it's highest and best use was, no need to have overthought it.

I'm not sure how to respond to this. If it is intended for a truly untutored audience, fine. But if it is for diligent readers, it might be a bit behind the curve. I'd say rezoning for higher density is now a national trend. That makes the idea of permanent freezes rather outdated.

Example: "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."

I was just reading the opposite,

California's stealthy approach to abolishing single-family zoning pays off

You've cited one example, Alex cited an empirical study -- one that is dated later than your news article, by the way. If an "untutored audience" is to make an assessment based on the evidence you've both provided, Alex wins by a long shot.

My hope in posting this comment is that you won't just come back with another isolated example or two. Feel free to post something more like the analysis in the paper Alex cited. Then the "untutored audience" will have something more to consider than isolated examples.

Explain your logic.

This "later" paper declares something that is just wrong. This is not an isolated example, this is a dramatic change in the most populous state in the Union.

More here:

ADU Development Activity Is Increasing in Los Angeles

Los Angeles was the specific example given, and the claim was wrong.

Do you really think this absurd bait-and-switch is going to work? This is two articles you've posted about accessory dwelling units in a single state of a single country. This is the evidence you're putting up against a journal article that conducted a more comprehensive analysis?

I guess you're the one who's actually counting on an "untutored audience."

Back up. Actually read.

"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."


Back up. Actually read.

I'd say rezoning for higher density is now a national trend. That makes the idea of permanent freezes rather outdated.


You are the king of the bait-and-switch, I'll grant you that. But it is still a bait-and-switch, and I'm here to point out that it is a bait-and-switch.

I mean, if you want to rest your whole case for what YOU call "a national trend" on the fact that a single sentence in the study cited above fails to account for "accessory dwelling unit deregulation" then uh... okay. But that's not really the point, and you know it. The reason I know you know it is because you began by talking about "a national trend" and now you're trying to pin your entire point on the possibility that this one sentence is wrong because a change to the rules about "accessory dwelling units" was made late last year.

Motte and bailey much?

Hey, I'm happy to talk about the national trend as well.

As long as we understand that the reason I discussed Los Angeles was because that was a specific factual error.

Now, on national trends:

Oregon moves to nix single-family zoning, continues a national trend

Congratulations on posting an article that agrees with Alex:

Recent analysis from the New York Times found that numerous U.S. cities have also zoned the vast majority of their residential land exclusively for single-family homes. However, critics across the political spectrum — as well as within the Trump administration — have argued that such zoning artificially constrains the supply of housing and pushes prices out of reach for many people.

This is a second example. The article cites your first example, which is California "accessory dwelling units," as well as similar legislation proposed in Seattle. So, three isolated examples. This is what your article calls a "national trend."

You still haven't made it anywhere near the caliber or quality of the study Alex cited. I asked you to, and you couldn't. The best you could do was cite two developments - positive ones, to be sure - and then declare this to be "a national trend." You've got more work to do if you want your "untutored audience" to believe you.

By the way, let's go back to my first comment, shall we?

My hope in posting this comment is that you won't just come back with another isolated example or two. Feel free to post something more like the analysis in the paper Alex cited.

You're really predictable.

So now you flip to my position, while still insisting I am wrong.

I'm not sure if that is more idiotic or dishonest.

My big claim:

"But if it is for diligent readers, it might be a bit behind the curve. I'd say rezoning for higher density is now a national trend."

You admit that's true now, while trying to find some wedge to criticize me.

We could have saved this whole misbegotten conversation if you *had* been a "diligent reader" who understood what I was talking about.

"You admit that's true now"

Not too good at reading comprehension, are you.

If you don't get it, and are building your metaphorical house on "no national trend," that is even worse.

See also:

"Single-family homes become central to housing-crisis debate" - San Diego Union-Tribune

"Zoned out: What does single-family zoning mean for Las Vegas’ affordability?" - Las Vegas Sun

"Minneapolis Confronts Its History of Housing Segregation
By doing away with single-family zoning, the city takes on high rent, long commutes, and racism in real estate in one fell swoop." - Slate

"To expand affordable housing, D.C. should reform single-family zoning" - Curbed DC


"Ending single-family zoning expands freedom and choice" - Orange County Register

"Will ending single-family zoning solve America’s housing crisis?" - Deseret News

"Seattle’s housing crunch could be eased by changes to single-family zoning, city report says" - The Seattle Times

Great headlines. I'd guess that the content of those articles is way better than the three stinkers you already posted, but of course I can't be sure.

And you've yet to post anything like the comprehensive analysis cited by Alex, so this is getting pretty silly.

You are making such a name for yourself as a loser.

You haven't linked anything, you've just been a poster child more motivated denial.

No link has been good for you, as you provide none, because your position is not at all rational or evidence based.

"You are making such a name for yourself as a loser."

And so you're down to puerile insults. Miscalculated ones, no less, because managing reputations is your game, not mine. I'm just here to talk about zoning.

But there is no way I can keep up with the four different comments you just posted in reply to me instead of linking to even one citation of the same caliber as the journal article listed above, so I'll leave it at that.

The last word seems important to you, so I'll let you have it.

What, you are going to argue that the national association of homebuilders doesn't know national trends?

Because "caliber?"

It's amazing how deep people will dig a hole.

Me: here is an article that talks about the national trend

RPLong: That's just an article that talks about the national trend, that doesn't prove there is a national trend

How does the national association of home builders report it?

"Oregon is in fact following a national trend in updating city codes that for years have led to a majority of land use being dedicated to single-family homes"

Why a ‘Ban’ on Single-Family Zoning Could Be a Good Thing

Portland, Oregon long ago adopted an urban boundary to protect farmland and forests just outside the city limits. As the population increased, the competition for existing housing raised prices. (One thing the city tried, long ago, was rezoning every residential corner lot for multifamily; not sure how that worked out.)

Anyway, the closer-in neighborhoods had been poor and working-class ones. Now the poor people, including the small African American population, have been chased to the far east regions of the city, and much of formerly blue-collar North Portland is designated as the city's Brooklyn.

A similar dislocation of relatively poorer African Americans living (often renting) in small houses near downtown Nashville is happening at a very fast rate in recent years; the houses are being replaced by high-rent "skinnies" on the same modest lots. In addition, Nashville's East Side, just across the Cumberland River, is another "Brooklyn" with a fast-declining black population.

I get why density is preferred, and I also get why poor people resent being pushed out of traditional neighborhoods to make way for richer, younger newcomers.

Does the empirical study include:

Detroit, the city with the most land area zoned for large single family housing lots, and the city with the most detached houses available for $100 or less to people committed to making the house their long time home.

California City, Ca, a well established city with land area larger than LA, with tens of thousands of buildable lots zoned single family.

Those are two cities where infrastructure has been built to make building the single family homes most families want affordable.

Instead the study focuses on cities where tax payers have prohibited spending on infrastructure to support any more housing.

California passed Prop 13 in an attempt to block population growth, but it's obviously failed.

But the so called "free market" has failed to make full use of infrastructure to support a very large population housed in single family homes that are the American Dream, eg, California City has ten thousand vacant buildable lots with all the roads and services single family housing requires.

Economists today believe in magic bullets, voodoo, free lunches: change the zoning from single family to multifamily and magically trillions in infrastructure will appear without any costs: eg, buying land and paying workers to build infrastructure.


Nah. I've been following the zoning rules for accessory dwelling units (granny flats, as it were) in California, as we live in one of the more restrictive zoning areas (Ventura County--google "SOAR" and see). While the new requirements are a step in the right direction, there are enough additional requirements on set backs, making the new building match the original in style, and so forth to significantly impede construction.

Even areas that are already zoned multi-family face a number of hurdles to go forward and build. It's great that LA has recently experienced a surge of building, and I hope it continues, but there are lots of places that would be much more densely built in the absence of restrictions, and as yet are not.

If your argument is that change is not happening fast enough, that's fine. But that is not the same as the argument that we are in the same old single family housing freeze.

I have decided to support Brexit.

Boris Johnson will be glad to receive your support, in whatever form it might be.

Just a reminder every Democrat in Iowa should vote for Buttigeig.

Isn't that the point of zoning?

If you consider zoning as the manifestation of what people want (rather than imposed from outside by socialist aliens), in the end, isn't zoning simply an effort to lock in "what we grew up with" and to keep hog farms, waste incinerators, slum projects, and cinder block big boxes out of it?

One thing I know is that elite golf community HOA design guidelines are far more prescriptive and narrow than the any of the worst municipal code I've seen. Given the choice to craft their own rules, the titans of the upper class turn to... enshrining detached single family homes with garages, and then go further to control the placement of basketball hoops, clothes lines, and political signs, not to mention landscaping shrub placement, home roof lines, and exterior finishes.

Zoning is indeed a way to lock in "our way of life". But it's about more than keeping out "hog farms and waste incinerators" (negative externalities) or "cinder block big boxes" (aesthetic, snob, and traffic concerns) or "slum projects". It's about keeping out any multi-family units and any business or manufacturing use that wouldn't seem nice (or quarantining them in a district away from the pleasant residences).

All of the new construction I see (and there is a ton al around me despite these protests) is HOA communities that enshrine in private documentation the same thing you see with public zoning.

I've noticed ZERO libertarian ideas for alleviating why people support zoning. It's assumed its based on malignant ignorance and completely invalid. Since they afford zero effort in examining the motivations of market participants, we should afford them zero consideration as well.

There is a big difference between the developer offering a contract up front that allows each family moving in to agree to those rules (or not move in), and a law. If a new developer bought every house in the development, they could then abolish the HOA on their own and redevelop. Can't do that to the externally imposed zoning.

If you use the law to prevent land from moving into other uses, you are not acting as a market participant. Please don't suggest otherwise.

Zoning is simply an attempt to enlarge one's yard without paying for it. If one wants the land that's not part of his yard to be used a certain way, he can buy it. Otherwise, one is not a market participant. A political participant, perhaps, but not a market one.

"If a new developer bought every house in the development.. "

Fantasy argument.

How so? Developers buy out entire condo complexes (not just buildings, but sets of buildings), rows of townhouses, and the like all the time. Of course they could buy up houses. They don't because people use the force of law, rather than entirely voluntary association.

Except for the little fact that they do.

Developers have bought large blocks of single family homes in Detroit for instance (typically numbered in the hundreds) for redevelopment. All without changing any of the zoning.

Overall, 11% of single family home purchases in the US are by exactly the sort of people you claim don't. Lest we think this is just some weird thing for Detroit, it is almost double the national rate in such locales as Long Island, Philadelphia, and Atlanta.

The real truth as to why developers go more after green fields and exurbs is because that is what the markets want. People want to live in low density settings on average. If they did not, it would be relatively trivial to buy out the votes - either buy a majority of the single family dwellings and stock them with people "encouraged" to vote your way or to just splurge the cash to salve the preferences of the current residents.

Of all the possible things for a Coasean bargain, zoning seems like it should be straight forward. Just offer everyone in the municipality half the expected gains of development, the current residents enjoy a windfall due to the possibly ill gotten takings of a century ago, and everyone wins.

Yet no one ever offers this. Wonder why?

"The real truth as to why developers go more after green fields and exurbs is because that is what the markets want. "

Well costs factor in rather heavily too. Developing in a city is generally more expensive and constrained than developing open fields. Of course, that's just another way of saying the markets look for low cost solutions.

It seems to me that every libertarian who points to HOAs as the free market utopia are either clueless or lying.

HOAs are modeled after zoning systems, and work in effect and operation exactly like micro-municipalities. They are simply a sub-division of local government. They are put in place by developers of vacant land because the developer feels that the existing municipal land use ordinances ARE NOT STRICT ENOUGH.

Your entry premise is flawed. When you buy a house under municipal zoning, you are making the exact same voluntary choice to join that regulatory regime as joining an HOA. Voluntary, and known in advance.

And in fact anyone who has actual experience with HOAs knows they are notorious for being even less representative than local government.

No, they aren't. When you buy into an HOA, you formally agree to the existing rules. When I buy a house in a city, I am not formally consenting to all of its laws, or even any of them. They're just... there.

Also, while I guess neighbors could form an HOA post-development (years later), that doesn't seem to be how they usually come about. But a few people frequently move to a city, and lo and behold, their house should be the last house built in the entire town. So yeah, HOAs and using the law really aren't the same, George. No amount of writing like you're yelling will change that, but have fun believing it!

Actually, when you buy a home in a city you are also agreeing to the rules of the city.

For instance, some municipalities have burning ordinances. In communities without them, much of your trash can be burnt and the resulting ash deposited on the property. If you move into a city with a burning ordinance, you are agreeing not to burn your trash, even though this will force you to incur expenses like trash pickup.

Similarly some cities have rules about runoff. And when you buy property you are liable for maintaining the drain tilage under it. Failure to do so can easily incur liabilities greater than the total value of your property.

And on it goes. Zoning is not unique. When you become a property owner you take a huge number of liabilities and many of those are different for different municipalities.

If you truly believe your rhetoric, then you need to light out to an unincorporated area now. You cannot buy property without assuming liability for it and as a matter of law whatever is on the books when you buy it you are assumed to have considered prior to purchasing.

Nonsense. You are making an artificial distinction that - while critical to supporting your dogma - is in fact complete horsehockey. When a person moves to a city, travels through a city, or buys property in a city, they are voluntarily accepting the legal jursidiction's rules and regulations, which are publicly adopted and avaible for inspection in advance. Only a moron buys property without consulting the zoning regs.

You are also blowing smoke if you want us to believe that HOAs don't change their rules from time to time, or arbitrarily or capriciously do/don't enforce them.

That reflects ignorance of political realities. If a developer owned every parcel in a particular district, rezoning would normally be a political breeze.

"I've noticed ZERO libertarian ideas for alleviating why people support zoning."

I've heard a few.

First, Freedom of Association means you can voluntarily join an organization that sets rules for how land is used. Home Owners Associations and the like. I would never join one, but personal preference isn't justification for banning something under libertarian economics.

Second, a person or group can buy land and determine its use. This has been tried several times and been somewhat successful. The "Hollywood" sign is an example of this. On a smaller scale, I've seen farmers set aside a portion of their land as wildlife preserves--nothing formal, just telling everyone else "Don't hunt in my woods or fish in my stream." Once the other farmers see foxes, pheasants, and other wildlife start to return, they jump on board.

There's also the principle that if you move into an area with a known noxious institution (paper mill, hog farm, airport), you accept that consequence. This became a BIG issue in Ohio when suburbinites moved into the country for a "simpler life", then complained about the smell of hog farms. Turns out the law and Libertarian ethics are on the same page here: the judges, after a lengthy legal battle, told the suburbinites to pound sand.

There are a few other solutions, but they mostly boil down to this: If you want a say in something, you need to have skin in the game. If you want to say how a lot can be used, you need to own the lot or be part of the group that owns the lot. If you don't own it or any part of it, you get no say in it.

Are you aware that "wildlife preserves" are heavily dependent on government subsidy, tax preferences, etc. And in fact arguably are misused as subsidy seeking and real estate tax dodge ploys, that happen to have a salutaory effect on wildlife and hunting leases.?

I am fully aware of that fact.

If you read what I wrote (a novel concept in this comments section, I'll grant you), you'll see that I was clearly discussing a very different concept, one that operates without government subsidies, tax preferences, or even knowledge in most cases. The one case where the government did become aware of one of these (that I know of) was an attempt on the part of the land owner to release juvenile pheasants and quail (native to the area) to repopulate the area, which the Department of Fish and Game shut down.

I'm talking about farmers and land owners voluntarily devoting a portion of their land to wilderness--on their own.

There isn't really a name for what these farmers are doing. It's unofficial, it's entirely by individual choice, it costs them money (in the form of non-productive land), and it relies entirely on the (very Libertarian) sanctity of private property. "Wildlife preserve" is simply the best name I could come up with halfway through my first cup of coffee.

Interesting that you would choose to insult my reading at the same time you cop to being lazy about your language. "Wildlife preserves" have a legal definition.

You yet again fail to read what I wrote. I specifically stated that I used the term because it was the best I could come up with--while providing a narrative description of what I was discussing specifically to point out the differences.

If you had any honest interest in a conversation you'd have engaged in one at this point. Instead, you're engaging in what I call "Gotcha Argument"--looking for any excuse, no matter how dishonest (and your semantic arguments ARE dishonest), to dismiss an argument rather than address it.

pfft, you are projecting. You are the one who launched a reply with an insult.

Believe what you will. The evidence is in this comment thread. I'm out.

Most HOAs restrict new building and home types, which is exactly what they are complaining about.

Also, I'm not sure libertarians are for freedom of association. It conflicts with the civil rights act, and while some fringe libertarians acknowledge this, most want to stay in the Overton window enough to back off on this.

You could end zoning tomorrow if you convinced the middle class it wouldn't mean their neighborhoods and schools with be flooded by the underclass. So if we have zoning, its because libertarians have decided its the lessor of two evils.

I agree with you on libertarians and FOA and its very disappointing.

A libertarian who supports the entirety of the Civil Rights Act isn't really a libertarian. He's a boring old conservative who wants a cool new political identity.

I'm not a libertarian, but I greatly appreciate their perspective. Unfortunately, an actual libertarian- who maintains his positions even when they run up against sacred cows- is tough to find.

Scratch nine out of ten libertarians, and find a Republican trying to dress up his tax/regulation whining

" Given the choice to craft their own rules, the titans of the upper class turn to... enshrining detached single family homes with garages, and then go further to control the placement of basketball hoops, clothes lines, and political signs, not to mention landscaping shrub placement, home roof lines, and exterior finishes."

Yes, and given the opportunity, the elite fly on private jets. What would it do for mobility if a private jet was required to do any flying?

That's pathetic sophistry

Somebody seems unfamiliar with modern American history and the creation of suburbia by developers, which involved precisely this process - "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."

.. and getting their infrastructure for free, and externally imposing the increased cost of public services....

The cleverer developers make sure to skim as much cream off the infrastructure building as possible too.

A lot of people don't know that the Supreme Court ruled in favor of local property zoning in 1926, in a split vote, overruling lower courts that had decided property zoning was unconstitutional. One Supreme Court Justice gratuitously mentioned he did not like "parasitic" apartment houses intruding on single-family detached neighborhoods, even though the case was about industrial zoning.

Sure, there may be some talk now about greater density but just try to convince any homeowner in a single-family detached neighborhood that there should be five-story condo with ground-floor retail across the street.

Moreover, the propertied financial class has a serious stake in continued property zoning. About 1/2 of commercial bank loans are extended on property. And of course property owners would be injured by unzoning.

This is one tough nut to crack.

There are no atheists in foxholes, and there are no Libertarians when neighborhood property zoning is under review.

Exactly. With density de-zoning, the rubber hits the road when a four story condo goes up next to a 40 year old SFR.

Now a dozen windows peer into your bedroom and down into your backyard. Your views are blocked, all you see is wall. Your house and yard is now in shade most of the day, your garden dies. There is no parking on your street anymore. The structure is now built right up to the lot line. There are more renters and more short tern rentals coming and going.

Regardless of the other impacts and services, this is a massive change qualitatively in terms of use and enjoyment.

"There is no parking on your street anymore."

One of the most distinguishing characteristics of suburban residential communities is the ban on overnight street parking and near ubiquity of driveways. Any apartment building or condo built in such a community would need to provide parking (or else only take car-less residents).

In my expereince, every single density redevelopment I am aware of did not provide 100% parking mitigation.

I've never lived or visited any sort of subdivision that banned overnight parking. Street parking is either banned entirely, allowed for residents only, allowed for limited duration, or allowed 100%.

Pasadena CA and Brookline MA (just west of Boston) both ban overnight parking on city streets. Source: I lived in both places. Pasadena allowed residents to get temporary permits to park overnight but IIRC they were good for only a single night.

Pasadena also prohibited residents from parking recreational vehicles in driveways. You had to park them ... I don't know where, a big RV would not fit into most homeowners' garages. Maybe some commercial long-term parking lot.

It's very much the same type of restrictions that Homeowners' Associations love to put on residents. "That's different because HOAs are private!" screech the libertarians. Well residents of Pasadena and Brookline are free to choose somewhere else to live just as residents of a housing development are free to move; this is exactly what the Tiebout Hypothesis is about.

" if you were to visit that same neighborhood decades from now, it would remain virtually unchanged." Well yeah, that's what people wanted back then, and it's what they want now.

You can change zoning, but you just need more than half the people living there to agree. Sounds like people are getting what they want. If you didn't like the current zoning, you should have bought in somewhere better suited for you.

"you should have bought in somewhere better suited for you."

Indeed, or put in the actual real effort implied by participating in the democratic system available to you at the local level: organize, advocate, join civic planning boards, and run for office. It's hard work that requires persuasion and compromise.

Libertarians talk a big game, but you rarely see them actually participating in the day in day out human effort that comes with democracy. When they do, it is inevitably as some self-loathing "I'm too cool for this" quixotic spectacle.

And faced with the living refutation of their core thesis (in the form of voluntary contract-driven HOA's that resort to draconian micro-control), they have nothing to say.

It's worse. Most of these libertarians LIVE in these restrictive HOA communities voluntarily.

"If you didn't like the current zoning, you should have bought in somewhere better suited for you."

There used to be a big contrast between two adjacent cities in my area. In one, you couldn't have a basketball hoop, or even leave your garage door open too long. In the other .. well the city sent a warning to a guy who had a front yard full of weeds and rusting cars. The guy wrote back "that's my car collection, all Cadillacs!" The funny thing was that the city said "fine." Of course times change, and now houses on that street are worth $700k-800k, and there is a lower tolerance for "car collections."

Still, for a time you could choose, and I was like "one city couldn't have those rules without the other."

It also prevents land from moving from high value to low value.

[ "The politics of local zoning, a form of public land use regulation" ]

...yes, it's all politics and blatant market intervention by local government.

Zonibng interventions are ALWAYS created & imposes by a minority of the community thru standard government coercive mechanisms.

And toss in the fact that local governments charge rent (property taxes) to all private property owners.
(the government landlord will eventually seize your property if you fail to pay the rent/taxes)

True privately "owned" real estate is rare in america -- that's the root problem.

Do you view companies that form trade promotion groups, or establish industry-wide spec standards to be market interventions?

Industry-wide spec standards are things like all electrical supply being 120, 240 or 480 volts, rather than unique voltages, pipe threads conforming to identical dimensions across the country, temperatures being measured by one of three available scales, bicycle and auto wheels being made to standard dimensions and so on that are market responses to conditions. A genuine market failure was Betamax, a unique system. The market survived without government intervention, however.

Well in fact when the industry players are unable to agree, or someone refuses to play along, they turn to government to intervene. And they are not above lobbying for government regulation to slap down uppity competitors (aka disruptors) while still in the cradle.

Zoning, meanwhile, is simply the homeowner's version of industry trade standards boards. It is in fact the most efficient and representative way to create a forum for the process of self-regulating.

The zoning model is effective enough, in fact, that private HOAs are modeled off of them.

Taxes are not "rent". They are a fee for local services.

Rent is also a fee for a local service.


You apparently cannot see the difference between 'forcing' people to do or not do something ... and 'voluntary' cooperation to do or not do something.

Trade-Associations and industry groups are voluntary organizations that cannot physically compel obedience to their rules.
OTOH government always relies upon physical (police) force to ultimately compel obedience to its rules.

Zoning rules are ultimately enforced by guys with clubs, guns, and shackles.


I'm not the one that requires a massive edifice of rhetorical gyrations, selective reasoning, magical thinking, and hand waving to make my utopian dogma seem plausible.

HOAs are enforced by a legal agreements, that are, if you actually bothered to live in reality you'd know this, in fact enforced by guys with guns.

And trade standards are, inevitably, enshrined by government regulation and supported with government subsidies.

Oh look, I just saw a unicorn. Oh goody

Right. Try it and see. Don't follow the HOA dictates. Refuse to pay their fines. Ignore the property lien. They cannot physically compel you.

Except that non-payment of HOA fines is grounds for forced sale and eviction. If you refuse to do their "voluntary" thing the sheriff will show you that guys with clubs, guns, and shackles also enforce private contracts.

As far as trade association groups. Let me know how I can "ignore" the ABMS and all that ilk. Somehow, in spite of all my official credentials from the state, I can be arrested if I bill myself as a fully competent physician if I do not comply with their "voluntary" fleecing of my time and money.

If you buy a home in an HOA community you are subject to the rules of the community which you are entering. If you buy a home in a community with restrictive zoning, you are subject of the rules of the community you are entering. In both cases, the guys with guns ultimately enforce the laws if you do not pay the fines or violate the rules too much. In both cases, you end up in the same place.

ALL contracts--from marriage contracts to business agreements--are ultimately enforced by guns. I guess we're all slaves, right? There's no difference between my employment contract (which, by the way, includes them having me escorted out by armed guards if I am fired for a whole variety of reasons) and a government labor camp. After all, both use force!

There is a huge difference between saying "I agree to abide by this contract, including the clauses related to breach of contract", vs. someone else saying "You will abide by the clauses of this law, including us deciding which punishments are appropriate should you violate this law." In the first case I voluntarily enter into the agreement; in the second, I get no say in the matter.

Funny, it is almost like there is no difference in the enforcement mechanism, just in its authorship.

As far as authorship of the laws, everyone knows what they are getting into when they buy, or should. HOAs have defined duties and rules, yet like any corporation a majority of the board can change them. Having 100 homeowners vote in an HOA to change the terms of the association is still just 100 people voting for new rules. Likewise, if you move into a city with a development master plan, you moved into a place with obligations and encumbrances. If 1,000 people vote in a change in the master development plan it is not that much different from an ethical standpoint than a vote to change HOA rules.

And that is the rub. In the HOA you get to vote based on your property holdings, your vote is whatever proportion of the HOA's "assets" you control. In a town, your vote is determined by the residents.

In either case, of an HOA or a city, changing the rules to diminish the value of the land can result in formal takings. In both cases, this can result in great diminishment of the owners ability to fully use their property as they see fit. Both can result in harm that merits compensation.

But this goes both ways. If you remove the right to develop on all plots, then people lose certain valuable uses of the land (e.g. putting up apartment towers). But you also lose certain valuable uses of land when you remove them (e.g. being able to enjoy a low density neighborhood without incurring the private enforcement costs of deed covenants).

Coase tells us that however we assign the initial rights, whether making development or low density enjoyment the favored approach, we should see a natural move towards the economic maximizing use of the land. If going from low density zoning to high is worth billions, then somebody should be offering the whole municipality a billion or more to make the transition. If it is worth millions for people to assure low density housing, we should see them chip in thousands each to restrict development.

Yet I never see the former Coasean bargain offered. Nobody ever goes to the entire jurisdiction and tries to negotiate a cash settlement for development rights. Why?

It is not like I ever read an article where a development consortium offers the residents of a town a cool $50,000 each to nix the zoning regs and it fails. Instead, all I ever see is backroom dealing where some developer pulls strings to get their stuff rezoned. Almost as though the benefits are small in scale and are accruing to a very limited set of rentiers.

Our friend Tabarrok doesn't get it: the folks who reside in the house with a pool located on a cul-de-sac in the suburbs like it there. And they like the restrictive covenants: no cars, boats ,or motor homes parked in the driveway, and nothing parked on the lawn, not even the lawn mower. Indeed, nothing in view, especially anything alive, is even better; that's why no sidewalks - to discourage pedestrians. And our friends in the suburbs don't expect a free ride; indeed, they are opposed to a free ride, public transit anyway, preferring instead the freeway that is anything but free or the best way. Whatever. Without proper zoning, suburban paradise would sink into the hell hole where other people live. Tabarrok just doesn't get it.

Something economists don't always do, I've noticed: think hard about what exactly it is they want, and name it plainly - this would be a great help to crafting policy. In this instance, if what you want is dense American cities - that is to say, density in American cities most of whose growth happened postwar - and all the magic urbanist stuff you believe goes along with that density - then freezing agriculture land is *exactly* what you should recommend - or rather, should have recommended thirty years ago or so. That, and in my neck of the woods keeping the interstates to their original intended purpose (it's too late, but what a different world it would be, if the interstates had remained limited access, frontage-road free, for city-to-city travel only).

AT wants to remove land-use restrictions and allow markets to decide how the land should be used. He's not arguing for urban density specifically, except inasmuch as land-use restrictions are currently preventing the kind of density that real estate markets appear to be demanding.

So he says, but we all know what he's really after is the fulfillment of a techno-utopian dream of making all cities resemble Taipei, and all humans dwellers therein.


He has championed population growth, as if it needed a champion, because in his addled view more bodies reduces to "more brains". He has wondered how we can *increase* the rate of urbanization in developing countries. He has stated that skyscrapers are the best way to house people and "reduce sprawl," so ipso facto he must dislike the low or mid-rise form of most American cities and towns, most of them perfectly liveable places in no need of reinvention. He has said the world needs more cities. He detests the idea of historic preservation, saying that "preservation is for dead butterflies," which suggests a totally unserious attitude toward the past and its relation to what is good in the present and thus to the future.

I am reminded of the urbanists who trade views (heavily moderated and homogenized) on a local public facebook page. I am not a member of Facebook, but I read the page in order to glean civic news. (We've basically lost our daily paper, and the alt-weekly that was once required reading on city stuff, politics, environmental news, etc. has become simply What's New in LGBTQ.)

While these folks have some good ideas, on the street level, say - in the main their preoccupations can be boiled down to: eagerly waiting for oldsters and especially Boomers to die; looking forward to a doubling of our population by immigrants; wondering how we might even now get those not-yet-here immigrants' voices included in the "conversation" and reflected in city policy and spending; how we might get single-family homeowners out of political participation, perhaps by altering how meetings or elections are held; hating on our mildly-enforced heritage tree ordinance, because it was something Boomers cared about, while occasionally elsewhere admitting that tree cover is a nice thing in an arid place where trees grow *very* slowly; a desire for the most charming parts of the city - central city neighborhoods much sought after - to be flattened and rebuilt, rinse and repeat (see above, just die already, rich people); eliminating cars and trucks from the central city, even to the point of contending that tradespeople and service people and construction guys and so on, should be able to conduct their lives and business from a bike with a trailer (note that people on this particular forum tend either to have a government or university job, or to get their living as a consultant in some form related to urban matters); frequently stopping everything to indulge in a competitively braying chorus about how white people are the worst - digging up a microfiche of some civic mention of segregation from 1910, or even the same one over and over, and pretending that it hasn't been posted umpteen times before; and my favorite, if someone mentions the large non-central portion of the city - the largest, we all know how to use a protractor - that might be classified as postwar ring or outer ring growth, "suburban" in character, and ways that it might be improved or given more urban amenities, or transit, or just anything about it - sniffily announcing that they don't really consider that part of ******. Even though it's principally where their cherished newcomers live ...

AT wants to take valuable considerations from property owners without compensation.

Every developer is free to go to the city council and offer enough money to change the regs. Yet few even bother. It is almost as though the populace acted collective to protect their property rights and now technocrats wish to seize them without bother to go through anything even resembling eminent domain.

He is disingenuous, or perhaps hasn't lived in the sort of place he disdains. I admit I share some of that disdain. My neighbors are in a conniption over the city's effort to change the underlying default zoning for most SF home areas of the city (quite modestly, to duplex or duplex plus ADU type zoming, still with lots of regs. about parking spaces and setbacks and such). I would be happy to see this change, and more, myself. I sometimes wonder that it never dawns on my middle-class neighbors that they would never in a million years vacation in a city that *looked like our neighborhood*. Indeed, they seek out within our own city, those areas that least resemble our neighborhood, for their vibrancy, their pedestrian experience, their small shops and restaurants. And purely from the standpoint of self-interest they are leaving money on the table by not embracing the zoning change, while mistakenly and contradictorily claiming it will bring property values down! and cause taxes to go up! But of course, the proposed zoning change will affect the city's single-family neighborhoods, including my own, very little. The vast majority of the doughnut has private covenants that will be untouched by the change, except just possibly insofar as it might invite challenge by builders. (In my hood, the covenants are not enforced in any way, and this gentleman's agreement has thus far allowed for lots of things more displeasing to the eye than a duplex or condo regime.)

That said, you are right - the way things (largely) are in SF-home areas of my city precisely reflect the market that prevailed - and still seems to judging by most of my neighbors - for these privately-entered-into deed restrictions; and everything has a price.

What you are suggesting would actually be germane to my area, where wholesale change would actually be necessary for AT's preferred aesthetic, as the "suburban" street grid as currently constituted isn't much good for anything except ... suburbia - and we're ten minutes or less from downtown.

Brazil is planning to send airplanes to rescue Brazilian citizens trapped behing Chinese borders after the ccoronavirus outbreak.

I never understand this. If the economic value of upzoning is so great, why exactly do we not just buy out the community?

If the utility to society is so much higher that we should override democratic outcomes, why exactly is society not willing to compensate the neighborhoods it wishes to irrevocably change? We recognize that some public goods need to use eminent domain so we compensate landowners for the takings. And we already have mechanisms for when the public use of land has impacts on adjacent landowners (e.g. impervious surfaces generate problem runoff for which landowners adjacent to new highways need compensation).

So say we anticipate $10 billion dollars in additional economy-wide benefit from upzoning all of Mountain View. It should be a trivially good deal to offer $5 billion to all 75,000 residents to amend their laws. If $67,000 is not enough to change minds, then we have some revealed preferences for how much value the residents place on low density. And lest we forget, such votes would need only be attractive to the median voter so we could ignore the small portion of ultra wealthy where the median annual income of the country is chump change.

I could see a very strong argument that zoning laws were illegal takings when they were enacted in the 1920s (e.g. Nectow v. City of Cambridge). However, after 100 years, the zoning of the community is part of the value of the land. People have, and will continue, to pay premiums to live in areas of lower density. All the data (e.g. U-haul, net domestic migration, surveys, etc.) shows that people actually prefer such living arrangements on average more than stacking themselves into the minimum sized box that will fit in a skyscraper.

Sure some people would prefer it if the laws magically reverted back to 1905 and they could do what they want. Some people would also like it if the illegal takings of 1066 or 1071 to also be rolled back. At some point, you have to live in the world that is; our current world has literally generations of land sales predicated upon remarkably stable zoning system. The advocates of change should then be quite willing to pay at least part of the bounty from development to the affected landowners.

The fact that I never hear of proper Coasean bargains between the forces for development and the communities who oppose it suggests that maybe the public benefits are not that valuable. I see no reason to give a windfall to developers and the companies that refuse to relocate to less expensive climes.

But then again, I'm silly and think that overturning democratic outcomes needs more justification than a few pieces of silver.

It is interesting people like Tabbarok never respond to such obvious and strong criticisms. Why don't they?

Even though in this case the article was very worthwhile, demonstrating ignorance of homophones in a headline, "straight vs. strait", does not encourage readers to go further.

But isn't Alex's position inconsistent with classical liberal positions on the importance of property rights? I would think that the most basic right that is hard to purchase is the right to guarantee the type of neighborhood you buy into? Aren't these different rights an attempt to forestall changes in the neighborhood in a world with illegal or difficult to enforce covenants on entry? How is this different from club memberships? In the real world, zoning restrictions are one way that key constituents try to stop politics and political/demographic/cultural changes from being imposed on the residents. The idea that all you want to buy is a house or apartment with no concern for the externalities imposed by others seems implausible. Can you think of a better Coasian compromise that preserves the original buyers' rights?

Don't bother, in order to preserve their unicorn bubble, libertarians will go to the ends of the earth to pretend that there is a substantive difference between HOAs and zoning. And will ignore all evidence that the HOA are usually worse.

No true scotsman at its worst

Just because you can take a concept and stretch the words "property rights" to cover it doesn't mean it has anything to do with the classical liberal concept of property rights.

Sure they do.

Going well back to the middle ages community restrictions on real estate have been part of the conception of property rights. Public right-of-ways have long been community restraints on land development (e.g. no walling off the beach). Beyond that we had all manner of community requirements, for example graves on your property may not be disturbed without following community standards. These all were extant restrictions on property throughout history.

The density movement is little more than a bunch of folks who think that economic growth is the single most important human good and also are unwilling to pay for it. Heck they rarely are willing to even lobby for it in the existing arenas.

Maybe there was a case for zoning being an illicit taking back when the land was first zoned, but now those restrictions are baked into the price. If we eliminated them tomorrow outside of typical channels it would be windfall for everyone who purchased today and a large illicit takings for everyone who sold yesterday.

As is, if we want to take considerations away from communities that you hold are implicitly valued at billions of dollars you really ought to be offering said communities a sizeable fraction of that implicit valuation.

Who is Tabbarok speaking to with his frequent criticism of zoning and other restrictions on high density development? People clearly want restrictions (zoning) on high density development. I believe suburban sprawl is stupid, but in this country and elsewhere stupid people have a voice. Should stupid people be denied the right to elect stupid politicians who adopt stupid policies including restrictions on high density development? I know, smart people who are in the majority are denied the right to have their policies adopted because of the stupid people who preserve the anti-democratic government structure we have in America that also preserves stupid politicians and policies. Just last week, a handful of politicians in California were able to block highly popular legislation that would have allowed high density development near transit. The blockers had one of two objections: high density development or transit. Our host favors high density development, but transit. What's your poison pill?

"People clearly want restrictions (zoning) on high density development." Yes they do. Most people like suburban living, at least while raising a family. Even in urban settings, people like SFH. High density living and transportation is a compromise between features and cost. Neither is the most desired, but kind of a WalMart choice. The high density promoters are more interested in tearing people down to their standards than making anything better. Odd that it's only one side forcing their preferences on the other.

Most people like a home with enough space for a family at a price they can afford. From my observation, that is the largest driver of suburban living currently. In many areas, it also gives you more control over school quality and demographics, which explains a huge part of the growth of suburbs over the last 75 years.

The argument seems disingenuous. In most big cities there is a clear process for upzoning a property away from low-density, so while it may be true that much of a city's area is zoned for single family, it is not true that this necessarily locks property into this zoning. The zoning tends to make it slightly harder to change the character of an area, giving local residents some control over how their neighborhood changes. When you invest in a property, you don't just invest in that land itself, but in the community it lies in, through taxes and participation, so it doesn't seem unreasonable to give residents some control over the areas they are investing in. I'm in Chicago, and zoning doesn't necessarily give locals the ability to fully block up-zoning, but it does give them input into the process and most of the time, I feel like the city is better off for it. It stops a developer from coming into a low density neighborhood and building a 50 story building without also giving attention to it's impact on traffic, established businesses, etc.

Suburbs on the other hand are a different beast, however the economics of development in suburbs are also very different and density is a much harder sell usually.

I was in India recently and actually noticed the opposite of what you discuss: that it was amazing how much high-density development is taking place outside urban centers, often right next to or in agricultural land. I honestly don't understand the conditions that even make that kind of development possible, but in each of the large cities I visited, it was highly visible. An hour outside of both Delhi and Mumbai are massive, city scale developments eating into agricultural land. The land between Mumbai and Pune, which was mostly agriculture when I visited 10 years ago, is now almost continuously developed into residential and commercial towers.

If anything, India seems like a country that should be protecting its agricultural land more than it already is, so as to avoid famine risk for its huge population. The more that land disappears, the less food is grown by fewer farmers leading to a higher risk due to flooding, draught, crop disease, bankruptcy etc. It also drives up food costs, as supply is reduced, which in a country with extreme inequality, can lead to massive famine and social unrest. This isn't a theoretical issue; it's happened before. Additionally, by allowing developers to take over agricultural land, it discourages more efficient growth in denser areas, leading to sprawling cities where more resources are wasted on roads, water supply, and civic services. These are the kind of external costs of land transfer that it takes government intervention to anticipate and avoid.

There seems to be some confusion here. There is a difference between freezing land use in an already built area and imposing too high a rate of single family homes in areas newly open for construction. It seems the latter is really the problem here, not the former.

Heck, in unzoned Houston they yave covenant restrictions that limit what somebody buying an already existing single family home can do. Why they have lower residential prices there is the relative lack of restrictons on new construction, which is also the case in equally inexpensive Dallas. This is not a matter of zoning locking in single family homes that cannot be torn down to build high rise multiple family homes, although perhaps this paper finds otherwise.

Part of the problem is that when folks talk about zoning they talk in grandiose economy wide terms. When folks vote on zoning they look at their immediate effects and impacts. Even greenfield development runs into problems.

Suppose I go into a small rural township at the furthest ring around some metropolitan area. I buy up a few farmsteads and proceed to develop the highest density that the market might bear. Great I have just quadrupled the value of the land and the economy hums along better because the land is more productive as housing than farm fields.

But suppose I bring in such density that I just dectupled the child density on these parcels compared to the average for the rest of the town. Typically school districts are financed on percentages of property value so now the new residents provide only 40% as much tax revenue per pupil. We are not allowed to give the new kids lesser educational resources, so we now must either decrease the school expenditures per pupil for the old timers to some new lower equilibrium or we have to raise taxes to keep things the same.

Likewise, if I dectuple the traffic on roads, their upkeep costs rise, often requiring paving, increased traffic controls, and longer commuting times for the old timers. And on it goes. Absent per capita taxation, increased density means increased costs with proportionally insufficient increases in tax revenues.

This would, of course, be a non-issue in a libertarian fantasy because the government would not be providing the schools, roads, fire department, EMS, parks, etc. But in reality increased development typically means increased net burdens on the public purse.

Maybe these burdens are less than the utility gains for the newcomers. Fair enough, so why not split them? Why do I see all manner of griping and moaning about development restrictions, but no serious efforts to just buy them out?

Even for greenfield development, we seem to be wholly unwilling to to recognize that the current zoning regime is part of the current property rights and changing it will be not increase the utility of property for everyone. This just begs for some attempt at a Coasean bargain, but I never see those offered anywhere near the scale of the alleged economic benefits.

Why is that?

Most people love space. Given the choice, they will take space around them - the more the better. Rich people have country houses. Middle class people have suburban homes. You can scream and yell about it all you want (and you do) but that won't change human nature. The urban elites don't understand this -- they never have. And they'd love to shove everyone into townhomes (like Prince Charles is doing in his ghastly development in England.) But. People like space. They even like...gasp... lawns! They always will. I know this is a horrifying thing for the ruling class and their ass licking professorial handmaids to swallow. But swallow it you must, until our country becomes a dictatorship of the urban elites and their ass licking professorial handmaids.

What is the fundamental problem here? I think there are two. First, because urban services like street and road use/congestion (maybe less so utilities, garbage collection policing) are provided at zero marginal cost, there are no financial incentives against more dispersed development. Second existing land users feel an (incomplete) property right in the environment of their vicinity ("NIMBYism"). Together these reduce both the supply and demand for denser development. Better pricing of services and developing some way to compensate NIMBYists with part of the value added by development would go a long way to overcoming the problem that Alex and many other have pointed out.


Combine zoning deregulation with land value taxation. Doing that at least has a chance to realign the constituencies who are behind the status quo. LVT discourages sprawl. That should appeal to the Left. It also discourages blight and rewards economically efficient land use. Those should appeal to the Right.

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