What does Bloombergian zoning look like?

One common objection to zoning deregulation from social welfare advocates is that giving developers more leeway to build what they want is just a “neoliberal” sop to private business interests. As a general rule, sops to private business interests can’t do things like boost affordable housing or increase low-income people’s access to jobs and grocery stores.

Note, of course, that the much more common objection to zoning deregulation from privileged neighborhood groups is precisely that it will boost affordable housing and increase low-income people’s access to jobs and grocery stores.

Anyway, I suspect that one reason some social welfare advocates conceive of zoning deregulation as a sop to private business is that they associate it with “neoliberal,” “pro-development” mayors like Richard M. Daley or Rahm Emanuel in Chicago, or Michael Bloomberg in New York. The problem with that,  of course, is that we’ve already established that both Daley and Emanuel have presided over a city where any kind of multiunit housing is outlawed in the vast, vast majority of residential neighborhoods. Daley, in fact, presided over major downzonings (a tightening of restrictions) in many neighborhoods. (More on that later.)

And what about Bloomberg, the world’s poster boy for business-friendly city governance by and for the rich? What kind of wild zoning deregulation did he oversee?

Well. A study at NYU found that Bloomberg-era downzonings outnumbered upzonings by about 1.65 to 1. Moreover, places that got downzoned were not like places that got upzoned:

Upzoned lots tended to be in areas that were less white and less wealthy, with fewer homeowners. Downzoned lots tended to be areas that were more white and had both higher incomes and higher rates of homeownership than upzoned areas. Areas with contextual rezoning were even whiter and richer (with median incomes “much higher than that of the city”), and had “very high rates of homeownership.” In other words, more privileged people were more likely to have the city change the zoning of their neighborhoods to preserve them exactly as they were. 

So just like everywhere else, rich people use the power of the state to protect their interests. In this case, they prevent natural market processes from densifying their incredibly desirable neighborhoods to allow more people to enjoy them.

And since they essentially cap their populations (just like Lincoln Park, Wicker Park, etc., in Chicago), other wealthy people who want to move to the city have to go somewhere else. So they’re funneled into less-wealthy areas, where they bid up housing prices until they’ve reached that neighborhood’s population limit, at which point they bid up housing prices a whole lot more.

That last part, of course, we call gentrification. And  it starts – in large part – with downzoning wealthy neighborhoods.

Which Bloomberg did.

So if you’re fighting against Bloombergism or Rahmism by arguing for more restrictions on what developers can build, turn around and look at who else is on your side.

6 thoughts on “What does Bloombergian zoning look like?

  1. Excellent post.

    One other thought on the downzoning to exclude development: it’s not just that downzoning is targeted at excluding new development, but that much of the downzoning is done out of the perception of harm to the neighborhood ‘character,’ rather than any actual evidence of harm.

    1. Yeah, definitely. Have you read “Zoned Out” by Jonathan Levine? I’m most of the way through it; it’s a highly theoretical treatment of why exactly zoning restrictions matter, and basically argues (among other things) that even though formally zoning powers are derived from state police powers, they’ve been interpreted both among the general public and among practitioners as being based on collective property rights, which allow for the sort of proactive prohibitions that you would never see otherwise. Anyway, it’s a super interesting book (if pretty dry), and I imagine you would enjoy it if you haven’t alrady read it.

      1. I’m just starting to read “Zoned Out.” I read Snob Zones a few months ago. Good insight into premium land capture.

      2. Yes, I’ve read it – great book. Levine was one of my professors, actually.

        The other book that was influencing my thinking on this is Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow. The book is tremendously interesting for many reasons, but the one observation of human behavior that pops into mind is the tendency towards not just risk-averse behavior, but loss-averse behavior. That kind of natural tendency explains a great deal of the rhetoric against change of any sort.

  2. I wonder how much the lack of any visible “price” for blocking developments encourages NIMBYism. If neighborhoods had to pay something when they blocked a developer from putting something up – even if it’s mostly just a nominal fee – would they be more reluctant to simply block everything?

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