Homevoters v. the growth machine

At City Observatory:

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 growth machine view. Credit: Matthew Rutledge, Flickr
The growth machine view. Credit: Matthew Rutledge, Flickr


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.

The homevoter view. Credit: Richard Masoner, Flickr


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.

3 thoughts on “Homevoters v. the growth machine

  1. Interesting post. Makes sense that nobody bothers to down-zone property until it is threatened with new development, most of which takes place in highly desirable areas.

  2. I really liked this, and have been meaning to write up something that it triggered for me for a while. This is the key thing for me: “As you can see, there’s quite a bit riding on which of these theories is right—or, more realistically, in what proportions, where, and in which ways, each is right and wrong.”

    Whenever discussions of growth machine and homevoter theories come up, there’s always been something that nagged at me a little bit. There’s a tendency to talk about one as right and one as wrong, but I think the better frame, which you touch on a bit, is that they’re not necessarily competing theories, so much as they’re theories of competing sources of power. The point in the study that really drove this home for me was this:

    “Neighborhood demographics. Growth machine theory might suggest that demographics associated with high real estate values, like wealthier and whiter neighborhoods, would see more upzones. Homevoter theory would say those places would see more downzones, as more powerful homeowners are more able to enact their anti-development orientation.”

    I can’t think of any proponent of growth machine theory who would think that wealthier neighborhoods would be the site of upzonings. That’s where the growth machine lives! But of course, there’s nothing in the theory itself that actually says it.

    That’s why I think Clarence Stone’s Regime Politics (http://www.amazon.com/Regime-Politics-Governing-Atlanta-1946-1988/dp/0700604162) is so important. It gets into how a growth machine (in this case, the downtown Atlanta elite) navigate tensions with competing sources of power (here, Atlanta’s growing black middle class). And that’s always going to be contigent and very place specific. At the same time, it doesn’t look at the larger regional picture, which has, I think, an entirely *separate* growth machine. I’m hoping that Atlanta Unbound gets into that (http://www.amazon.com/Atlanta-Unbound-Enabling-Planning-Landscape/dp/1439909407/), and discusses the differences and overlap between downtown and regional interests in Atlanta.

    How growth interests balance with home voter interests is crucial to where we’re at now, and arguments that simply dismiss one or the other are quite frankly useless. I think the current wave of centers and corridors plans are an attempt to direct that balance into a more equitable direction. But it’s probably more likely that the balance is largely going to be gentrification + sprawl + suburbanization of poverty, because that’s where the growth and homevoter interests are aligned.

    1. Missing the new powerbase: young (20-50 y.o.) wealthy people who can’t find the urban condos which they want. This is the “gentrification” group and in cities where they exist (they don’t exist everywhere, basically only in places with a lot of well-paid techies) they are directly at odds with the aged “homevoters” and will fight tooth and nail for upzones.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s