There are two big theories about who controls the pace of development in American cities and suburbs.
One is the “growth machine.” In this telling, developed by academics like Harvey Molotch in the 1970s, urban elected officials and zoning boards are highly influenced by coalitions of business and civic leaders interested mainly in economic growth and maximizing the price of the land they own.
The other, developed later by the economist William Fischel, is the “homevoter hypothesis.” Fischel argues that real power—at least in the small to moderately-sized municipalities in which the majority of Americans live—is held by homeowners, who are also interested primarily in maximizing the value of their property: their homes.
These two theories closely track two of the major camps in the debate about what’s wrong with American housing policy. If you believe in the growth machine, either because you’re a reader of Molotch or it just happens to coincide with your general worldview, you’ll probably believe that US cities suffer from too much development, pushed on an unwilling populace by a profit-driven elite for whom zoning and planning is an inconvenience at most.
If you’re in the homevoter camp, conversely, you’re likely to think that the problem is too little development, as NIMBY homeowners scare local elected officials into blocking any housing development that might compromise their property values—either simply by increasing the housing stock, and thus the number of “competing” sellers, or by introducing “undesirable” kinds of people or buildings.
- Interestingly, proximity to high-quality infrastructure and services made land more likely to be changed in both directions—that is, land far from high-quality infrastructure and services was more likely to remain in its original zoning category. But in almost every case, proximity was especially likely to lead tomore downzones. For example, parcels in high-performing school districts were 43 percent more likely than the typical parcel to be upzoned—but 392 percent more likely to be downzoned.
- Correlations with market growth were weaker—but they suggested that growing markets were associated with downzoning. Parcels in neighborhoods seeing rapid population growth were 41 percent more likely to be downzoned, for example. Parcels in neighborhoods seeing rapid home value increases were about 20 percent less likely to be upzoned, although they were also 27 percent less likely to be downzoned.
- Downzoning was very strongly correlated with whiter neighborhoods: parcels in Census tracts that were over 80 percent white were more than seven times more likely to be downzoned than parcels in tracts that were less than 20 percent white.
- Parcels in tracts with high homeownership rates were 43 percent more likely to be downzoned, and 25 percent less likely to be upzoned. Parcels in districts with high voter turnout were 230 percent more likely to be downzoned, and 53 percent less likely to be upzoned.