Four points: It’s not about highrises, etc.

Ramsin Canon, to whom I’m indebted for being the very first person in Chicago to publish my writing, has joined Aaron and me in the latest round of conversation about zoning deregulation as a way to get some control over housing prices and build more equitable cities.

Like Aaron’s, it’s a long, thoughtful piece with a lot of moving parts, and a lot of provocations. For now, though, I just want to make a few points related to Ramsin’s and Aaron’s posts – and the debate in general – that I think are too often obscured.

1. The most important way to increase supply is with midrises and 2-4 unit apartments, not highrises.

Supply arguments about affordable housing have focused largely on highrises, because those are high-profile symbols of density that excite urbanists and anger most other people. And it’s true that in the most exclusive neighborhoods of New York and San Francisco, skyscrapers are the most obvious ways to add lots of new housing units, since those places are already pretty dense. But under the kind of zoning deregulation that most advocates have in mind, the vast majority of densification would actually happen in outlying neighborhoods and suburbs, and would take the form of medium-sized and small apartment buildings where previously only single family homes were allowed.

“The limitations of space,” Ramsin writes, “even in geographically large cities like Chicago and New York, suggests that…you’re talking about midrises and highrises.”

But in fact, there isn’t really much of a shortage of space. Certainly in Chicago, there are vast areas – a majority of the city by land area – where simply building three- or four-story apartment buildings would easily double or triple the existing density. And that doesn’t even count the suburbs, where you could double or triple densities just by building tightly-spaced single family homes, a la Chicago’s bungalow belt. While midrises might be more necessary in much of New York City proper, many of its suburbs are among the worst offenders of having extremely low density caps. Its metro area, after all, is less than half as dense as Los Angeles’.

2. For the most part, the effect won’t be to allow the working class to live in the Gold Coast or Russian Hill; it’ll be to provide affordable market-rate homes within reasonable commuting distance of those places.

There is a shortage of space inside already-defined “elite” neighborhoods, however. And there are so many wealthy people who would like to live in those elite neighborhoods that it’s extremely unlikely that even completely unfettered building would result in prices so low that regular working- and middle-class families would be able to live in the heart of those districts without stretching their budgets. That said, zoning deregulation would absolutely and dramatically shrink both the size of those exclusive districts, and the physical distance between them and areas that are affordable to the vast majority of households, which means better access to the jobs, grocery stores, schools, and other amenities that wealthy neighborhoods accumulate. It also means that a much, much higher percentage of people would be able to commute reasonably by public transit, which would give them the option of saving something like $5,000-10,000 a year in transportation costs.

3. Exclusivity is its own advantage, and will diminish when the legal walls are torn down.

“The problem as I see it,” Ramsin writes elsewhere, “is that…what makes a neighborhood ‘good,’ in the sense we mean here, is often precisely the exclusivity of the neighborhood.”

True! Places like Wilmette, in suburban Chicago – where the median household makes somewhere north of $200,000 a year – can only really exist in a highly-regulated environment where that sort of exclusivity is enforced by law. Otherwise, everyone else would want a piece of the incredible schools, beautiful parks, excellent public services, proximity to jobs, and so on, and median income would trend back down to normal. (Actually, most people already want a piece of that; it’s just that Wilmette’s laws prohibit them from getting it.) Attacking income segregation through zoning deregulation would, in fact, mean that America’s most egregious bastions of privilege would become less privileged. But that’s a feature, not a bug. Everywhere but in our municipal politics, our country operates on the principle (in theory, at least) that the rich should not be able to self-segregate to pay only for their own lavish public services. Providing services that are somewhat less lavish than Wilmette’s, but more equally shared, is largely the point.

4. Density does have negative externalities.

Ramsin and Aaron are both concerned that increased density itself might ruin the city. “The very thing that makes particular neighborhoods and areas attractive,” Ramsin says, “may be erased by the introduction of density sufficient enough to impact costs.”

To which I say: I’m skeptical. While it’s true that people do like their big yards and houses, it’s also true that most people have consistently proven that they’re willing to negotiate in exchange for price and proximity to jobs and other amenities. Same goes for aesthetics. Everyone would like a craftsman bungalow, or a brownstone, or whatever; but in a world with tradeoffs – between, say, maintaining historic neighborhoods exactly as they are and being able to afford a home anywhere near those neighborhoods – compromises are necessary, and most people understand that. After all, it’s not as if lifting zoning regulations will eliminate single family homes; in all likelihood, they’ll still be the most common type of housing pretty much everywhere. But if you really want one, you might have to move a bit further away from the middle of town, where demand isn’t so great that it justifies apartments everywhere. That’s not the end of the world; that’s managing tradeoffs.

More importantly, though: Where is this place that was destroyed by density? I’m not aware of a single American neighborhood that became less desirable after market forces caused significant densification. (That is, at least since the advent of modern plumbing and electrical systems.) Some people may have believed it was less desirable, and that’s fine; but on the whole? No. In fact, I can only think of the opposite case, where densification caused a growth in amenities that led to greater demand.

The examples that Ramsin and Aaron give – public housing and Corbusier’s plan to replace medieval Paris with modernist high-rises – are both cases of extreme government intervention in the regular evolution of the city. In those cases, sure, there’s no reason to believe that the project of some urban planner somewhere is going to sit well with the general public. But zoning deregulation isn’t about forcing density on an unwilling city; it’s about allowing people to build what other people are willing to buy. If apartment buildings and midrises are so onerous that no one really wants them, then they won’t get built. But there’s precious little evidence that I’m aware of to suggest that that’s the case.

That said, there are obviously some negative externalities to dense living: increased strains on city services, less open space and/or sunlight, and so on. Ramsin’s final section suggests that zoning deregulation be coupled with increased regulation to force developers to pay for those costs. I’m not sure I have a fully-formed opinion about that, except that it strikes me as a little bit weird to put the burden entirely on the developers. Why not just use the extra tax revenue you’ll get from the development anyway? If that doesn’t cover it, why not spread the costs around to everyone? We don’t, for example, demand that newborn babies – or, maybe more fairly, immigrants – bear the entire cost of their negative externalities as extra people taking up space and using resources. After all, a significant amount of new development – the majority, almost certainly – takes place to make room for our growing population. Why put the entire burden for the costs of natural growth on the people who happen to have gotten here most recently?

4 thoughts on “Four points: It’s not about highrises, etc.

  1. The idea that more density, more market freedom, and more zoning deregulation will solve all of our problems is a convenient strawman to set up when talking about the broader consequences (intended and unintedended) of the regulation that is constraining our cities. Too often, I see it devolve into the density, yes or no question.

    The broader point is that allowing the market to add supply in order to meet demand is a necessary but not sufficient condition. Given the current constraints, advocates rightly focus on removing the constraint itself. However, this opens up the argument to the easy strawman that deregulation alone will solve all problems, that more density alone will solve all problems, etc.

    We have to get over that hump of talking past one another to move forward. I hope framing it as a necessary but not sufficient condition helps.

    1. Yeah, I think that’s exactly right. Unfortunately, part of the problem is that the coalition for zoning deregulation and the coalition for, say, more subsidized housing, are the not the same. I think most people for whom this is a big issue know that both are necessary – even the fairly free-market folks like Ed Glaeser – but that’s less true among the general public.

      But yeah. I should do a better job of saying that deregulation is insufficient every time I talk about deregulation.

  2. A couple of other things here: even if all apartments cost the same per square foot in a given neighborhood, there will be a range of prices because there’s a range of sizes. There are always trade-offs to be had between location, size, quality, and price, and pinning one of those via regulation forces people to compromise on the others. Right now, zoning basically mandates a maximum quantity and minimum size, so people end up trading off location, or privacy (by sharing with roommates) in order to be able to afford the prices. Also, with less of a shortage and more liberal rules, I expect there will be more of a diversity of housing within any given neighborhood and thus more of a price range available without having to travel miles. When you force all other variables to be the same by zoning, distance is the only thing you can trade off against cost, which does not seem very efficient.

    Finally, consider what would happen in a given outer neighborhood if zoning is drastically loosened. Developers would start buying up parcels and replacing buildings with newer, denser ones. Oh no! There’s displacement! But, which buildings are they going to replace? Well, the smallest, oldest SFRs first, and the number of unit they’re replaced with will likely be at least 3-6 times greater. So the displaced SFR residents get to move to relatively more affordable apartments, and as an added bonus, they get a nice payout on their dramatically more valuable land (since it can now be used for building apartments). And those who can’t afford SFRs get a chance to effectively pool their financial resources to outbid the SFR-dwellers (somewhat indirectly via the developer/apartment landlord, who take a cut, but still).

  3. I’m at Chicago city hall right now to testify against down zoning near my home for all the reasons you mention above, and more.

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