Don't Throw that Baby Out!
Updated: Apr 9, 2018
Development regulation is the new housing crisis culprit.
Lately I’ve been reading articles that place the blame for America’s housing crisis at the feet of development regulation. The authors are not making the distinction that the rules are wrong. The claim is that if we just roll back regulation so that there is less of it, our housing crisis would lessen.
It is true that zoning regulations have too often been used by local governments and anti-growth residents to freeze neighborhoods in time and keep them from growing, even as population growth increases the pressure for more housing. Conventional zoning is often used to keep anything but low density, single-family housing from being built. But development regulation should be about more than just housing—granted the worst abuses have been on housing. Bad medicine shouldn’t taint good. Rather than indiscriminately throwing out development regulation, we should reconsider what regulation does and make it work better for America's growing towns and cities.
Almost from the beginning, zoning was used to exclude people from certain neighborhoods, most often by keeping out apartment buildings and their occupants. Then beginning in the 1970s, zoning became a way of securing wealth. Americans started giving up on savings accounts and looking upon their homes as investments. Zoning then came to be seen as the means to keep unwelcome things away from your house that might affect its assessed value. The single-family house zone became sacrosanct. It may be monotonous, but its economics are predictable. Hence the rise of much NIMBYism. But as the growing field of behavioral economics has shown, there are a lot more drivers to human behavior than economics.
One is our sociality. Human are attracted to enclosed places as settings for social gathering. Unlike bison, flocking birds, or schools of fish, we prefer to gather with others in spaces with vertical edges. Those edges can be defined by trees, the walls of rooms, or the facades of buildings. Even the strongest defenders of single-family houses are attracted to populated streets, plazas and squares bordered by buildings—shared public spaces where fellow humans can be seen walking, dining, and shopping.
But how can a street or other public space develop a feeling of enclosure if there are no governing rules on how each property owner builds? If one building is at the edge of the sidewalk, but its neighbor puts a parking lot between the building and the sidewalk, or is turned 45 degrees from the sidewalk, the sense of enclosure is lost; so is the continuity of experience for the pedestrian walking along the sidewalk from building to building. Traditional walkable main streets become impossible. Development regulation that includes building form and public space standards, like a form-based code, is a better alternative. They set the rules for shaping public space, making it possible to create walkable social and commercial centers.
In reality, these centers create their own market for nearby housing. Housing construction historically has gravitated to be near these social centers. These were and still are desirable places to live a short walk from. And the more people who live nearby, the more life is added to the center, thus increasing the desirability of living nearby.
The problem is not development regulation per se, but rather regulation intended to prevent change rather than shape the places we live.