Academic journal article Stanford Law & Policy Review

The New Exclusionary Zoning

Academic journal article Stanford Law & Policy Review

The New Exclusionary Zoning

Article excerpt



The term "exclusionary zoning" is understood to apply only to suburbs, where municipalities dominated by homeowner cartels anxious about property values and taxes demand land use regulations that prevent certain kinds of development and raise housing costs above what low-income families can afford to pay. (1) ("Housing costs" are just "property values" viewed from a different angle.) Decades of scholarship--legal and sociological--outline how these policies left low-income families stranded in faltering cities whose abandonment by suburban homeowners-to-be at least left behind a large supply of low-cost housing. (2) In cities, where renters predominate, and whose size and heterogeneity opened the door to special interest politics, developers had more power and a much freer hand. To the extent they wanted to build, they could. (3) In the 1960s, '70s, and beyond, many cities were desperate for any development they could get.

A separate and newer strain of scholarship--primarily economic--has complicated and updated this story. Urban populations and incomes grew as people of relative means trickled back in to certain cities starting in the 1970s and '80s, then streamed in as urban crime subsided and the economy boomed into the 2000s. These new residents expected to exert a measure of control over their cities and neighborhoods, and demand for development controls increased as cities got denser and richer. (4) Starting with San Francisco and Los Angeles, and later Boston, New York, and Washington, D.C., and now spreading to the interior, development is not keeping pace with the number of people who want to live in these regions.

As in the suburbs, cities began to employ land use restrictions to limit the density of housing, impose lengthy approvals processes that provide ample hooks for NIMBYs, and mandate expensive forms of housing. (5) Many of the country's most desirable and most economically vibrant cities are no longer "Growth Machines." They may be getting richer, and in that sense "growing," but an emphasis on building housing and adding population is a thing of the past. Consequently, housing prices in these post-Growth Machine cities have risen much faster than the national average. (6) The effect has been the same as in the exclusionary suburbs: The anti-development orientation of certain cities is turning them into preserves for the wealthy as housing costs increase beyond what lower-income families can afford to pay. The phenomenon deserves a similar name--the New Exclusionary Zoning.

If low-income families can't afford the suburbs and they can't afford the cities, where should they go? For the first time in American history, it makes sense to talk about whole regions of the country "gentrifying"--whole metropolitan areas whose high housing costs have rendered them inhospitable to low-income families, who, along with solidly middle class families, also feeling the crunch, have been paying higher housing costs or migrating to low-housing cost (and low-wage) areas like Texas, Arizona, or North Carolina. (7)

Underlying both of these phenomena--high housing costs in the suburbs and high housing costs in the cities--is a relatively straightforward problem of supply and demand. As demand to live in a particular suburb or city outstrips the existing housing stock, two things can happen: more housing gets built to meet the demand, or prices get bid up to ration the existing stock. In the regions that form this Article's focus, the second effect predominates.

This is uncontroversial among urban economists but not broadly understood by low-income families, advocates for low-income families, housing activists, and their allies in academia, policy, and government--in short, the housing advocacy community. …

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