In this episode, I’m joined by Nolan Gray and my friend Lars Doucet to discuss zoning, city planning and land value taxes. Nolan is the author of the upcoming book about Zoning, Arbitrary Lines: How Zoning Broke the American City and How to Fix It.
Well, Nolan, how are you doing today?
I’m fantastic. Thanks. So how are you? Well,
doing great doing great. And and just for the listeners, I’m joined today as well by Lars to say, a frequent co contributor here, especially on that the land policy side of things
I developed what will
Nolan, you know, do you mind giving us a brief bio and some of the big ideas you’re interested in?
Yeah, totally. So I’m a professional city planner. I was a city planner in New York City, in Queens specifically. And I’m really interested in land use planning, and how we govern the growth of cities, how we manage the cities. So in the US context, that means looking at things like zoning subdivision regulations, and how these have a huge impact in shaping what cities look like and how they work or don’t work. And right now, I’m also working on a PhD in city planning at UCLA.
Lars Doucet 1:37
So real quick, just for the normies here, which includes me, what is the city planner? Actually do? You know, when a Normie, like me hears that you kind of think someone’s playing SimCity, but in real life? So what are what is your actual mandate? In like the role of a city planner, when you have that job? And what are the the official limitations? And what are the functional limitations on what you can and can’t do?
Nolan Gray 2:01
Yeah, that’s a really great question. What is a city planner? Yeah, I think you’re exactly right that most people have a SimCity conception of City Planning, right? Where, oh, there’s like this, this board of, of technocrat deities who manage everything about cities day to day, and kind of couldn’t be further from the truth and a lot of respects, maybe a different political or historical context, it was more like that. But in contemporary US context, the planner can be a lot of things, right. So it can be someone basically doing code enforcement, you know, making sure that the hedges or the fences are the right height, we’re not too tall, all the way up to people who are doing long range planning. Right? So people who are putting together capital plans for cities, so you know, what are going to be our big infrastructure investments over the next 10 to 15 years. So there’s a range of different types of planning that happen, you know, among those different levels, right. So you have planners who are focused on environmental planning, so protecting sensitive natural areas dealing with things like stormwater management and sewer management, dealing with things like air quality, you have planners who are more focused on land use planning, which is my specialization. So regulating growth regulating the built environment, what can be built, where what types of uses, and at what scale? You have planners who do historic preservation of planners who do economic development. So it’s, it’s kind of a catch all title for anyone that everyone has a to do with policy at the city or metropolitan level.
So it played, play quite a few different roles there. It really is, depending on where you are in like, in context dependent sounds like,
Yeah, and you really do specialize pretty intensely, you kind of have to I mean, it’s the the planning profession prides itself as being jack of all trades. But in most cases, you’ll you’ll specialize pretty heavily. And there are planners who do the types of things that I think the average person thinks a planner does, right? So parks management, you know, playing out parts, planning out street grids, reviewing new subdivisions, stuff like that, that does still happen. But kind of back to the the original point you were making, Lars, which is the the SimCity view of City Planning in practice, you know, planning is very, very, very political. And in many cases, practicing planners actually don’t have a lot of leeway to sort of push their policy perspective. In many cases, you’re the kind of a bureaucrat that’s kind of following political orders. It’s not to say that there aren’t great planners who orders orders from whom, usually elected officials or the self appointed leaders of community groups who can scare elected officials. To give you the cynical answer, I’m going to give you the cynical answers rather than the like planning school theory as well.
Well, yeah, that’s what we’re actually here is like, because it’s like I asked earlier, it’s like, well, what you know, and I should know better than to do double barreled questions. I’ll just chop them up. What are the actual limits of the power like officially, like in platonic Spaceland? And what are the actual practice? The limits of the power as actually practiced in the field.
Yeah, I mean, so in theory, early planning institutions were designed to be kind of independent and insulated from the political process. The idea was, you wanted to have an independent City Planning Commission, they might have been appointed by the mayor or the city council, and usually appointed by the mayor, and then an independent planning agency. And the idea was to set up institutions where these people could really like act independent of political institutions, for better or worse, right? This is a very, like, kind of, you know, modernist view of governance, right, we need to get the experts, men insulated from the politics. And in our current situation, we’re very much at the opposite end of that, it’s kind of attractive, but today, you know, it’s much more of a political process, right? So in theory, right, what city planners are meant to be doing is they’re going to sit down and write a 30 year comprehensive plan, you know, pulling together demographic data and economic trends. And, you know, what is the city look like? What kind of infrastructure is going to need? How are the demographics changing? What how does that show up in service provision, stuff, like schools, and parks and transportation planning. Sit down from that comprehensive plan, all functions of government are supposed to be sort of built around pursuing this plan. So you know, the street investments are going to be based on the comp plan, where we open schools is going to be based on the comp plan, where we open parts is gonna be based on the comp plan, where we allow housing, and encourage housing, versus where we try to disincentivize or block housing, it’s all going to be built on this comprehensive plan that was supposed to be based on these big, you know, economic demographic principles. In practice, a lot of cities actually don’t even have a comprehensive plan. And in many more urban context, where there is a comprehensive plan, there’s actually no legal requirement that cities follow it. So it ends up becoming a kind of perfunctory process and, and things like zoning, just become hyper politicized.
Cool. So I’ll ask one more question, then I’ll it will take the lead for the subsequent batch of questions. So your brother’s podcast, in part, because this book you’ve written? Do you want to tell us what the thesis of the book is? And how it connects to the spiel you just gave us?
Yeah, so I just gave you a really big picture spiel on how city planning works. And it’s big, and it’s messy. And it’s also hard to generalize about because it varies based on state and local rules. So you know, city planning in DC works very different from city planning. In San Francisco, for example, you know, Chicago, and a planner in Chicago, might move to a place like Miami and not kind of have any real sense of how the planning works. Just it’s, you know, maybe that’s not the case, but it’s certainly possible. So my focus is on land use planning, the way we govern the growth of cities in the US context, that’s mostly things like zoning, zoning, those two things zoning segregates uses. So it says you can do residential here, commercial here, industrial there. And then, you know, within those broad categories that are districts for, you know, innumerable 1000s of different subcategories, right so corner groceries, as opposed to supermarkets apartments, as opposed to single family homes, light industrial, as opposed to heavy industrial. So that’s half of zoning, the other half of zoning is regulating the massing or the density of these developments. This is things like how close can a building sit to the property line, I’ll talk into building B, how much floor area can the building have. And again, these are going to vary based on district a, as we’re probably going to talk about, over the course of this podcast, there are a lot of critiques of how zoning works in the US. In the book, I argue that it’s made cities more affordable, more unaffordable, excuse me important distinction. It’s it’s locked, its black people out of moving into high opportunity areas where they could, you know, become more productive and increase their wages and make us all wealthier as a result. It’s entrenched things like racial and economic segregation, things that we like to think we’ve moved past, but we very much happen. And it also forces cities into a kind of sprawling auto oriented pattern of growth. And it’s fine if you want to live in a context like that. But in zoning, we don’t give anyone the option to live maybe in a neighborhood with a corner grocery or to live a life where they can take a bus or ride a bike to work. So you know, we know that zoning is broken, and it’s not getting us what we want. But there hasn’t really been a lot of conversation about, you know, you can reform zoning, that’s fantastic. And we’ll talk about that as well. But you know, what would it look like to move past zoning? You know, what do we want ladies planning to do? At some level, we want incompatible uses to be separate? We would ideally like growth to be coordinated with infrastructure investments, of course, right? How can you argue with that? And we know that zoning hasn’t achieved those, but what would it look like to have a land use planning system that does that? And zoning has kind of sucked all the air out of the room on these conversations, like well, we have this this is how we do it. We have the system and we all know it doesn’t really work but we’re gonna tinker with it and make it slightly better. And I kind of just wanted to move the conversation to the next step. Like, no, like, we all know the system’s broken, like, what would happen if we just tossed it and started over? What do we want ladies planning to do?
I like how you talk about what comes after the revolution, because it’s nice to talk about what the problem is. And we’ll just abolish x. And then once we’ve done that, you know, everything will be fine. But I like that as a city planner, you’re talking about what comes after. And I will I’ll let you ask any any concrete follow ups here, because I’ve talked enough already, but this is this is this looks really interesting and spicy
to me. Well, after the revolution, they’ll have to hire me and my consulting firm. That’s
nice, right? Absolutely. Well, well, no, I’m curious. Do you know much about the history of zoning, like, you know, how did we get here? And yeah, how do we get here?
Yeah, so So, since the dawn of time, we have had way nice planning. Yeah, that’s such a great like freshmen way to start a point. Yeah. Since humans have lived in cities, we have had mechanisms that look like latest planning, right? So you know, regulations on building materials, which actually aren’t usually in zoning codes today. But right. So historically, it would be like you can’t have the exterior of your property be built with with flammable products, for obvious reasons, right? Or rules about distances between properties if they were, or rules on things like noxious uses, right? So before zoning, we have rules to say, hey, you just can’t have a slaughterhouse in the middle of the city. Sorry, like, we know, it’s going to be a problem. We know it’s going to be smelly, and noisy, and people aren’t gonna like, or, you know, rule segregating other disfavored uses, sometimes for what we would recognize as traditional externalities, sometimes for cultural reasons, you know, sex, sexual or alcohol related businesses, right? Zoning is a step beyond that. And right, so in the early 19, teens, that’s sort of the tail end of the progressive era, you know, right around the time that we’re adopting prohibition, and things like eugenics are really popular, and, you know, not to completely mischaracterize this era. But just to emphasize the point that a lot of bad ideas that we scrapped were popular back then. And I would argue zoning is one of them. But in 1916, the first zoning ordinances come online, and they’re different in the sense that they aspire to comprehensively catalog out all land uses, and determine every square inch of the city where each use is going to go or to be allowed. And also to zoning takes a step further on stuff like massing rules. So historically, many cities did have height limits, they didn’t have height limits, because they were worried that an apartment building would block the sunlight that lady needs for her zucchini garden to use the infamous San Francisco example. But because if there was a fire, we needed to make sure that we could get the people safely out. Right and, and technology, you know, fire abatement building technology, to say nothing, firefighting technology was not statistically. So historically, cities have these things like setback and height limits, but they’re very, very, very closely tailored to actual nuisances. And zoning kind of goes a step further to say, you know, we’re going to not only say, wherever use can be even things that we don’t historically think of as a nuisance, like an apartment building, or a corner grocery, are also going to liquidly determine what every single building is going to end up looking like in terms of the massing, you know, we’re going to have new residential subdivisions that are only single family homes that have no commercial where every home is set back 30 feet from the front, from the street, where every home has a large backyard, very much a kind of a social planning vision, right? Like, because by being able to regulate these things, you’re able to regulate what type of person is allowed to live, where and what type of life they live. And so zoning has this sort of, you know, much greater ambition than anything like city planning in the past. And as I tried to argue in the book, you know, there’s this, there’s maybe this like Disney quality, there’s like this Disney story of zoning that I think a lot of planners are taught and reinforce, as they do zoning day to day to clear their conscience, this idea of like, oh, you know, in the early 1900s, industry was just starting in 1910. And there were smokestacks, and they’re, you know, they were factories next to residential areas. And so like, that’s why we needed zoning. And if you actually dig into sort of like the road to zoning in places like New York City, or Berkeley, it’s very much more a sort of Battle Royale special interests, right. So in the New York context, you know, commercial landlords were irritated that industrial was moving near them, and they weren’t upset about industrial because of any traditional negative externality. The Fifth Avenue retailers were upset that the poor Jewish factory girls who worked in those factories would come and walk around on the street and lower the class, you know, the classroom is up the street and scare off their upscale Anglo customers or in the Berkeley context, right? You see things like that they want to do about industrial zoning. Okay, interesting. What kind of industries were they worried about? And it’s invariably like a Chinese laundromat. You know, and and about They were clever enough to say things like, Oh, well, the laundromats fire hazard. But then it’s like, okay, well, like why do you only bring up the Chinese laundromat? And we also know that there’s this kind of really nasty history in California of an anti Asian discriminatory language policy. So, you know, zoning is is it has these really unusual and modern in various sort of technocratic ambitions, but it ultimately has kind of from its beginning serves special interests. And that’s, you know, that’s what I’m trying to drive home in the book. But there’s there’s not this like Disney story of like, oh, yeah, you know, smokestacks next to schools. And then planners came in and save the day, it’s much more complicated and much more reflects the way that we know zoning works today.
It makes a ton of sense. There’s special interest. You describe who kind of the bootleggers and Baptists are of these interest groups. And and the follow up question to that is, is, you know, how this is probably a bad word defeatable? Are they are like, how is how possible is it for us to overcome this? As because, you know, it’s like this crazy collective action problem. It feels like,
just quickly to D jargon, if I for anyone in the audience who doesn’t know what bootleggers or Baptists is, it’s two people you would assume or an opposition who actually kind of work together whether whether if that sort of makes sense, like the prohibitionist Baptist actually kind of benefit from the bootleggers and vice versa, you know, who are making the illegal alcohol? And
yeah, that’s that’s such a great question. And thanks for for clarifying, Lars. This is I’m reviewing the final proofs on my book. And I think I use this metaphor, like four times. And I might have to like actually turn it down a little bit. But it’s such a it’s such a useful lens for interpreting public policy. And so to your question, I think that’s really crucial to understanding zoning, because you had the Baptist right, who were these kind of high minded government reformers, who, you know, they, they were kind of swept up with the times and literal
literal Baptist or just metaphorically.
I think they were literally probably some variety of mainline Protestants. Yeah. You know, I don’t, actually yeah, I’m almost certain that’s probably what they were. Because that I mean, that’s another element of this. Right is, that’s another lens of like, politics, that’s kind of fade away. That’s like, like, being a mainline Protestant as like, denoting your your political views in some way. Right. Like, because at the time, a lot of immigrants were Catholic, right. And people from from Southern and Eastern Europe, put that tangent to the side now. But the Baptist in this context were people who, you know, very understandably, like, let’s use some of the human knowledge to, you know, rationalize our cities, right, like our cities are booming. And yeah, there are like, in some cases, real landings conflicts that could have been prevented. Yeah, there are issues of congestion on the subway in the New York context, or issues of congestion in certain very high density parts of the city. You know, there were problems that were ultimately solved by institutions other than zoning. Right. So overcrowding and housing, right, which was partly a function of function of immigrants, you know, being very poor and needing to crowd into areas where they could be near opportunity. You know, we saw that with stuff like building and health and safety regulations. But so, you know, you get this Baptist story for sure. The bootleggers, it really depends on the context. So as I mentioned, in the in the, in the New York City context, one of the main interest groups that pushed for zoning was the Fifth Avenue Association, an association of retailers along a very posh commercial district who were upset about the incursion of industrial and other contexts. The principal bootleggers were homeowners who were irritated about apartments coming onto their block into maybe nice areas of the city where they lived. And rather than sort of, you know, do a cozy and style and pull together and pay, you know, property owners not to develop their property in ways that upset them, or, you know, voluntarily opt into covenants or deed restrictions, they turn to government to basically enforce their preferences and enforce their financial interests.
One thing that’s really interesting about this is that it kind of seems like it’s very much a heavy handed, kind of modernists centrally plans, kind of vision, and we can go into that, but one thing I want to make sure we cover just for the sake of, you know, keeping ourselves honest here is was what are the benefits of zoning? You know, what I mean? Like if we if we just try to be as fair as possible to zoning, you know, what are the problems? It doesn’t just proportionately solve, what are the problems it actually solves? Right. And are there things like I assume your cases that we can solve those things in other ways without all these problems, but what are the things I can legitimately does solve?
Yeah, yeah, I, I have actually a section in the book, where I try to steal Manzoni and, I mean, I think touch on I know you want to actually solutions that come out of zoning. But I think the the, the argument that we need, we need mechanisms to prevent incompatible uses. And we need mechanisms to coordinate growth with infrastructure investment is obvious, right? I think there’s no question in my mind. And, exactly to your point, because zoning is around and because zoning is such a powerful tool, it often does end up getting drafted to do things that kind of look like city planning, right. So like we say, to new developers, hey, if you want to build this big building, we’re only going to let you do it. If you dedicate some area on the ground floor for public plaza. Or, Oh, if you want to build this apartment building, we’re only going to allow it if you set aside 20% of the units to be income restricted for families earning 40 to 60% of the area median income. You know, everyone knows that we need some forms of subsidized housing. You know, we can quibble about the form that that takes so everyone knows that we, you know, a healthy city needs public plazas and public parks. But so zoning ends up getting drafted into a lot of these mechanisms, or occasionally for things like environmental regulations, right. So setbacks from from waterways, or setbacks from wetlands, sometimes zoning is used to accomplish those other times not It really just depends on the city. So with wetlands regulation, right, a city might adopt a wetlands ordinance, or a city might use zoning to accomplish that. You know, I think a benefit just to give the devil it’s do I think one argument that a lot of people would make for zoning is they would say, well, zoning is how people get some say, over new development that happens in their community. And, you know, I think there’s a yimby impulse to just kind of relentlessly make fun of that claim. I’m actually not totally unsympathetic to it. You know, and I think it’s, it’s reasonable that people would have some say, in things like public investment, or the general rules that are going to structure new development, I think the question is, what’s the healthy way to the healthy wage to sort of give people that say, today, the way that zoning does it, I’m sorry, Lars, I’m going to slip back into criticism here. The way the zoning does it is to say, all right, like when a building is proposed, you can come and yell at the developer and also the city planner, and then we’ll make the project smaller, or we’ll just kill it. And that’s you having your say, I think that’s a very impoverished view of like public participation, and participatory city planning. And I think another way we might do things is to say, let’s take that comprehensive planning idea seriously. Like, rather than sort of having these ad hoc public hearings where people just show up and yell, and essentially, their only option is to say no. Why don’t we in a systematic way, go out and survey people? You know, what, what do you want in your community? What sorts of things do you want to see? Do you know, scientific survey, things like focus groups with a representative, you know, cross section of the community?
Are you saying that what we’ve been doing is setting up a model where the Council of the people who get to make the decisions just kind of go out and make a decision, and then they present it to the public, and then whoever is motivated enough to show up yells at them and tells them not to do it. And so they cut it down, and then you just wind up with something nobody wants? Or is that a mischaracterization?
So the way zoning works in most cities is you’ll have a zoning ordinance that was written 25 to 50 years ago, and no politician wants to touch it. Because opening that up is going to be a huge headache. Just look at the situation in Austin, where they’ve been trying to rewrite code next for like two decades now. So nobody wants to touch it. So you have this old book of rules in a zoning ordinance that everyone agrees make absolutely no sense and don’t allow the type of development that that everyone agrees is necessary. But so rather than change that zoning, the system becomes will come in and ask for discretionary relief. So come in and ask for a variance or come in and ask for a special permit, we’ll let you ignore those zoning rules. But you have to come and ask. And when that happens, you get this big case by case by because those things usually have to be approved by the local city council. And so rather than having these big picture discussions on like, you know, let’s sit down and do a 30 year comprehensive plan for our city. And then that comprehensive plan would should force us to change elements of our zoning code to allow the type of development we know we need. And we ultimately want instead we get these case by case fights. These are the planning hearings that you know, fill up your local newspaper and drive, you know, really extreme comment sections. And so, you know, that’s sort of the way that the participatory planning works under zoning.
That makes sense. That makes sense. I’m curious, Nolan. Do you have hope for reforming zoning in the US and kind of defeating special interests when they come up? Or is this just kind of a pipe dream? This, I mean, obviously you’re working on it, you think it must be achievable?
Yeah, I mean, I, I go back and forth on what we’re doing right now. I mean, there’s moments where I think we’re just keeping a tradition alive for, for when the moment aligns. And then there’s moments where I think, well, things really are changing. You know, here I’m in, I’m in Los Angeles, which is kind of like an advanced case of zoning, breaking the city. And ditto for sacrifice San Francisco in a slightly different way. And, you know, here, the problem of things like housing affordability, and access in the high opportunity regions has become so extreme that there finally is a coalition that can overcome all those special interests. And I think that’s mostly what we’ve seen with things like the me movement, right? People have all these conspiracies about the UB movement. And to my mind, it’s just fairly obvious that for one of the first times in US history, a lot of young professionals realized, oh, I don’t actually have a path toward owning my own home. And they became naturally very upset about that. Of course, most of them just left and go, you know, to raise housing prices in places like Utah and Idaho and Arizona. But if those whose day they were like, Yeah, I mean, this is very obvious that the status quo hurts me and, and enriches someone who was lucky enough to buy a Bay Area home in the 70s. And that’s kind of a crazy system. That’s a crazy way to run a city, let alone in our country. So from that perspective, I’m really optimistic. I mean, we’re already seeing policy transfer happen. So stuff like California pioneering the preemption of accessory dwelling units, which allow homeowners to have an additional apartment in their garage or attic or basement. California has legalized those statewide, regardless of how restrictive local zoning ordinances are, and were missing.
Can you say how much I love the phrase legalize housing?
Yeah, I mean, well, it’s and this is, I think, part of the genius of VMB. Right? Yes, in my backyard, like, I think there’s a there’s a positive element to it, right, we’re so so much of planning is so reactive, and so negative. And so, you know, we had a whole generation where, you know, being a steward of your city meant saying no, and blocking things. And in a different context, where you had stuff like freeways being built through neighborhoods, where you had the government coming in, and actually eminent domain in an entire neighborhood, I actually think that impulse was totally valid, right. And, you know, the people who stopped neighborhoods from getting demolished to build freeways or to build you know, sports stadiums, God bless. But we’re in a very different context. Now, when that same impulse gets applied toward a four Plex, or maybe a coffee shop on the corner of your street, right? Like, these are very different things. This is, this is no longer Hey, we’re gonna stop, you know, large malicious actors from coming in and taking away people’s homes to we’re not going to let you do what you want with your home. And also, we’re just not going to allow anyone to build homes for you. I mean, but back to your question, I’m very optimistic. I the conversation. To me, it seems like in a place like California, there’s something like a consensus that that something has to be done, I’m sure you can find troglodyte. You know, outer wealthy suburb, somebody members who are in denial about this, I know they exist. But for the most part in California, most serious people are like, okay, yeah, we have a problem. The problem is that there’s just not enough supply coming online. And it comes down to a lot of these regressive zoning rules that were written 100 years ago. Let’s fix it. So I’m very optimistic from that perspective. How do you, how do
you think about going about that? Like, the the problem I see is, I think you’re absolutely correct. I think the tide is turning, and people are interested in like, you know, why is hot? Why have housing prices gone? up so much? You know, and I think a lot of people believe like, it’s due to zoning. And a lot of things have gone wrong there. We just can’t, you can’t build more housing. It’s supplies very fixed. But my question is, is like, you know, for an individual person, it’s not worth very much versus the homeowner who doesn’t want the skyscraper beside them or something that would block their zucchini garden like, lady with a zucchini garden, she’s really motivated to keep her zucchini zucchinis growing, right? Whereas like, yes, it would be much better if my rent was like, $50, Less $100 Less a month, but that’s spread out. And for her, it’s very concentrated. Does that make sense?
No, absolutely. I mean, I think, I think in the near term, they’ve avoided this problem, because people, I think people have a kind of need to be part of communities like this. So you’re exactly right that me as an individual renter. You know, if I go out and do end advocacy, I have basically no dreams, this is going to like lower my rent, or even maybe to a lesser extent that it’ll make housing cheap enough in a near enough term for me to actually buy it. So I’m One level, like I sort of appreciate what I’m doing as making cities cheaper for the next generation of people who are in my situation, and getting some psychic benefit from that, and also the benefit of a community. You know, I found that these groups are really great. And it’s passionate. If you want to meet people who are really passionate about building more affordable, walkable, equitable cities. You know, these are these are great communities to be a part of. But I think, exactly to your point, right, just, there’s some fundamental issues with with the system that I actually this is partly one of the reasons why I sort of are trying trying to move the conversation forward, what comes after zoning, because you’re exactly right, that, that incumbent property owners are always going to have some incentive to use a system like zoning to exclude, they’re gonna have a much stronger incentive to show up at those meetings. And at the end of the day, they’re probably almost always going to be the key special interest that’s driving, mine is planning. And we need to think about a system that’s robust to that sort of a different capacity or interest in being involved in the process. That’s sort of why it gets to this whole need for things like scientific surveys or focus groups and things. Let’s
get into that. What comes after the revolution, what comes after zoning, we talk about how we get there and a bit but what is the vision you want to implement?
Yeah, so I make the case for two things. Right. So the first half of this is, we have a city that doesn’t have sorry, excuse me, Houston’s a very weird city. It’s i It’s hard to refer people to zoning because I don’t think Houston made so many of the other city planning mistakes of the 20th century, right? They build huge freeways, they demolished like, you know, half of their downtown, they mandate parking and stuff like that. But they didn’t make one mistake of 20th century planning. And that was the agenda of zoning. And they have a sort of unique system for making that work. Like why did Houston not adopt? So one of the reasons is that they had a pretty robust system of private deed restrictions and covenants. So people in these single family home neighborhoods who had extremely strong preferences for keeping out things like neighborhood commercial uses, or even multifamily, basically, were able to opt out of non zoning, they have these deed restrictions. Now, people always love to say all these things are basically like deed restrictions, or deed restrictions are basically like zoning, Houston, basically have zoning. It’s not at all the case, these decisions only apply to these very small pockets of where these people should live. And so unlike in a zone city, they don’t really have any say on what happens outside their little fiefdoms, they don’t have any say on what happens on the commercial property, that’s just down the street from their subdivision. And that is
the case in other cities. So I, as a constituent there can have say on what happens in a place outside of my own local community.
Yeah, or outside your way. So you might be on a residential side street, right. And it’s all single family homes, and you’re in Houston. And there’s a deed restriction that applies to all of them to pay all of us want this type of communities. And none of we’re all gonna sign this agreement saying that we’re not going to turn our homes into apartment buildings or office buildings. Setting aside that office buildings don’t even want to be on streets like that. But at the end of the street, right, there might be like, an eye hop on the corner. And as rents are going up, I hops that, you know, land prices are going up, I hop says alright, actually, this land is more valuable to us to just sell it or you know, and then move into the the residential pad that or the retail pad that the developer will put into the building, right, perhaps. And the Houston context, neighbors can raise a fuss and they do, but they ultimately don’t have a lot of levers for stop of that if it’s outside of their little deed restricted, you know, fiefdom.
So you’re, like zoning, turning around, but like, basically your visit, the key point here, I want to make sure I’m interpreting correctly, is that it seems like zoning is a way to kind of superpower the right to complain of people who don’t like the direction something’s going into. So like, it’s not just that there are organized opposition, it’s that the law props up the organized opposition to have like, really, like super standing to complain or something like that.
Yeah, that’s exactly right. I mean, the institution’s effectively have that result, right, which is that if if it comes down to if enough people show up and complain, something’s not going to happen, kind of regardless of what the the findings are,
but it’s not just like a pure democratic thing. It’s like, like, there’s enough angry people who don’t want this and therefore doesn’t have it’s like, no, it’s because the law of zoning gives their votes basically much more power than other people’s because they can point out that this is like against the zoning ordinance or
whatever. Well, this is this is I think, an area where it’s zoning as a plot zoning and theory to purchase with zoning as applied right zoning in theory that I have, let’s say that I have needs a rezoning to be an apartment building. They go to the City Planning Commission, they make their case they say, Hey, you know, here’s all the ways that we that this project will advance committee To the cup, you know, ideals discussed in the comprehensive plan. Here’s all these sort of community needs that this project is going to fulfill. Right? In theory, the City Planning Commission is supposed to make findings on these types of planning considerations. In practice, exactly to your point, we have kind of a tyranny of whoever shows up to complaint, right. And as we know, from from from literature, the types of people who shot the complaint are not very representative of the broader community. In many cases, they’re older, they tend to be white, they tend to be much wealthier. I mean, when you have these planning hearings that are at 11am, on Tuesday, naturally, you’re going to get a certain type of person, that’s zoning and practice ends up becoming this, this, this situation where it’s a tyranny of whoever shows up and how they feel about the project. And so in a context like Houston, it’s slightly different, right? So people within their, their communities, they can voluntarily opt into land use rules that might look something like an r1 zoning district, or it might look something like a single family zoning district in another city. But number one, they have to voluntarily opt into it. And number two, they have no say on properties outside of their outside of the community that opted into it without maybe buying those rights or negotiating for those rights. And that’s something you do see in Houston and other unsewn contexts is when you don’t have this sort of regulatory fee of determining what can go where neighbors actually talk to each other, and they actually buy each other’s rights. And they, you know, of course, some communities are gonna have more sophisticated sophistication of this and others, but it’s you have to pay for
the right to exclude, essentially, what you’re saying is that it’s like, if you want the right to keep your neighborhood frozen and Amber, you have to buy out the other people who may not agree with you rather than just have it as some kind of divine right.
Yeah, yeah. So you know, I There are cases like this and unsewn context where, for example, you might have a residential neighborhood that the back end of it, fronts against the commercial strip, right. And they have a deed restriction that applies to their neighborhood. But there’s a little commercial property, that could be a lot of different things. And a gas station is proposed on that property, neighbors really don’t want a gas station because they’re noisy in the floodlights, and they smell that. And so they buy out maybe the right of that property owner to develop it into a gas station. So you know, we will be fine with a strip mall. But we really don’t want a gas station. So that types of like that type of COSIA bargaining, you know, to go back to that sort of theoretical framework, which I think is underappreciated by landings planners, it does happen, it can happen. And actually, I think there’s a role for planners to play in facilitating those types of transactions, right? Because we know that the theory depends on zero transaction costs. And we know that that doesn’t apply to the real world, we can have ladies planning frameworks that reduce those transaction costs, and get people into the, you know, at the negotiating table, on, you know, land leases or practices that maybe offend one side of the party and get them to a point where they can reach a settlement to find mutually agreeable land uses, as opposed to the sort of way we do today, which is essentially relying on the regulatory fee of 50 years ago, right.
Okay, so your your your thesis is basically that not only is this going to more accurately represent the interests and desires of people who actually live in places rather than just whoever shows up at 2am, on a 11am on a Tuesday. But it also, it also is more responsive to change in needs and demands over time. Is that what you’re arguing? Yeah, I
mean, I think that’s another big issue with zoning, right, is that it sort of locks cities into whatever the vision was, or whatever the reality was when they adopted their zoning code. So for example, the new york city zoning code in its current version was adopted in 1961. That was a time when there was fear of, you know, people are going to be leaving the city and the industry might be leaving the city. So you know, they took a zoning code that allowed, you know, hundreds of millions people and dropped it down to a zoning code that allowed, you know, eight to 10 million people. Of course, now, New York City is a very different place. And there’s, you know, significant demands a little bit the city, but we still have the zoning code that only allows a very small number of additional people to move into the city just based on zone capacity. So you know, you’re exactly right, you need a more dynamic system of landings planning. I mean, I, the way I characterize it is emergent forms of landings planning. You know, people were actually pretty good at setting up a lot of these institutions that they would like the operative form of landings, planning. And most of us context, even where zoning exists are private deed restrictions, neighborhood associations, Hoa is in many cases, they’re much more restrictive than zoning, and people opt into that. And so, you know, I think if people want to do that, that’s perfectly fine. Obviously, you know, we have rules for for certain types of rules that we as a society don’t want to see enforced by courts. So things like you know, racial covenants are no longer enforceable. But if you want to pull together all your neighbors and have them all sign a contract saying we’re only going to do single family homes here. That’s funny. Then don’t try to adopt these broader zoning institutions that stop up growth elsewhere in the city. And that’s essentially how Houston has avoided having zoning is that the people with the most extreme preferences for zoning, like ladies planning, got it in a way that didn’t actually destroy the entire city.
So that’s it’s amazing to me, because I grew up around Houston, I grew up in Conroe, which is just a, you know, a stone’s throw away. And Houston Yeah, it famously doesn’t have zoning, it does have the covenants. It’s really interesting to hear you talk about the nuance between those because I often heard that that kind of caught that. That deed restrictions, basically our zoning by another name, but it’s interesting to hear that that you take the position that they’re not really and it’s interesting to get into those details. Now, one thing that a lack of zoning, you know, talking about Houston’s other mistakes. A lack of zoning has not saved Houston from is just enormous sprawl like Houston. I mean, more than plenty of other cities has just enormous sprawl. And so here’s something we’d like to do a little segue here towards the end of the show, towards villainize mutual interest is, you know, Georgia ism and land value taxation. You know, and it’s interesting sometimes in urbanism is that you see, people who think like, land value tax will solve this. And that’s all we need. And you hear some other people think, you know, no, no, we don’t need that at all. All we need is zoning reform, you know, and we’ll and I kind of take the position that they’re allied positions, they’re two great tastes that taste great together, and they kind of work better at this, if you have both together at the same time than individually. But I’m curious what your position is. And, you know, do you agree, do you disagree? You know, what is your take on land value taxation and property tax reform, alongside zoning reform? Does it help? Does it hurt? Deserve really tricky nuance to get? Right, what do you think?
Yeah, I mean, just to sort of like, start in a different place with answering that question. I mean, a city like Houston is sprawling, you know, for reasons that probably weren’t ever going to be really affected by the land use planning, or maybe even the property tax system or the land tax system you had in place, right. Houston is kind of like an urban economics model. It’s a flat feature was playing with, you know, not a lot of like high value agricultural uses. Not dissimilar to, you know, other sort of southwestern cities. Right. So So why does the city like, to a lesser extent than Houston? Why does the city like Phoenix sprawl, other than where it bumps up against public land or reservations, because there’s literally no other economic use of the land. And so as soon as you know, you have the infrastructure in place, that those properties are going to get developed usually into single family homes.
They’re an argument that, that that, you that the infrastructure is not necessarily able to support itself and the nature of, you know, kind of the strong town’s argument that it’s like sprawling happens, because it’s cheaper to buy the marginal land, even if that’s worse for the total economic system, because speculation has driven the price up of the interior land, so you have to go get the later land even though now you’re paying more to like pave a road out there and drive sewers out there and all that kind of stuff.
Yeah, although in the Houston context, I’m sure they have like a Ford F 150, Texas edition or whatever, rather than a Subaru but no, I mean, I just wanted to start with that, because people are always like, Oh, well, like, Houston’s gonna have zoning and look at how sprawling Houston is like, Houston doesn’t look like Boston? Well, it’s like, there are historical and geographical reasons why Houston doesn’t look like Boston. or New York, right? You know, when you when you have like these codes, you have places that actually have like land constraints, development is going to be denser, despite the nature of land prices, or cities that grew up before the advent of the car are going to end up looking very, very different from cities that thick road after it. I mean, I don’t know, an expert in inland tax issues. I mean, I’m broadly sympathetic to the argument. I think it makes sense. You know, I, of course, this is this is so much of the value of land is tied up in neighborhood uses. And in that sense, it is kind of a land use planning. consideration, right, that that so much of the value of your land comes from what your neighbors do. And also the the infrastructure improvements. I think for another thing for a city like Houston, just to sort of set Why does Houston sprawl? You know, is it is it a function about zoning, Houston sprawls for the same reason that every major city in Texas falls, which is these geographical flat features, plane elements, but also the city built infrastructure. You know, they built massive roads out to the middle of Greenfield’s. And, you know, your city is going to look like, you know, the infrastructure that you planned for. So, you know, if you weren’t building these huge freeways, that reduced commuting times, for people who live in Plano to get to downtown Dallas, then you wouldn’t have scroll all the way out there. And, you know, I’m not to I’m very much sympathetic to the strong towns argument that this is, this is a pretty, you know, a fiscally very dangerous pattern of development and that, you know, a lot of cities haven’t fully internalize the maintenance costs and the regular rebuilding costs of a lot of this infrastructure. I you know, back when it was still something that anyone thought was gonna pass. I You know, a little uneasy about some of the build back better mechanisms for spending this money to build more of these freeways? You know, I think that’s your actual question about land value taxes, I think it gets the incentives aligned. Right, in terms of how people use property. You know, one of the things I wonder with it is for, you know, the extent to which this pushes, you know, long term homeowners out of their property, they don’t want to right so, so something that was happening in Lexington, which speaks to just how bad housing prices have gone national that my hometown of likes to Kentucky has things like gentrifying neighborhoods, and rising home prices, is what was pushing out a lot of income and homeowners was that as more people were moving into the community, property taxes were going up, and as property taxes, but the mechanism would have worked the same for land value, right, like land values are going up because more people want to live in that neighborhood. So the only way they were able to kind of get out of the situation where, you know, in many cases, retired senior homeowners were having their property bills, quadruple, or, you know, quintuple was to offer some form of relief for low income households. That’s something where I, you know, because I think that the basic theory makes total sense. But I wonder about these sort of marginal cases of like, you know, how do we work around some of the problems of land taxes? Yeah, you’re the expert, though. So I mean, you can have interesting ideas on this. Well, there’s,
there’s a lot of people you talk to, there’s a lot of schools of thoughts, you know, there’s some people who want to do all sorts of political versus reading, you know, what I mean? So like, one of them is that it’s like, one of the oldest ideas, of course, is that you take a lot, you know, all or at least a portion of the land value tax that you raised in your community redistributed as a citizens dividend, right? And what that basically makes it is that, you know, the, you know, that that’s basically kind of your your sort of abatement right there, other people are willing to, like, carve out some restrictions and do some, some, do some horse trading for you know, that the poor widow, so to speak, right? You know, but the other part of the argument is that something people bring up a lot is that nobody talks about the poor widow, who’s a renter who gets kicked out of her place, and nobody talks about the poor widow who’s homeless, who can’t afford a place, right? It’s only the poor widow who’s in a 500,000 million dollar home, who needs to pay taxes on it that anyone ever like, like, everyone cares about her rights, but nobody cares about the other two poor widows. And so I mean, in terms of practical politics, there’s a lot of roads, you can go down, I think, first of all, even the most ardent single tax or Georgist admits that we’re not getting there overnight. And that, you know, the first step is to take your existing property tax regime, and just shift it off of buildings and on the land, you know, collect the same amount of tax. So that really, you know, hopefully, incentivize more building in various places, and stuff like that, so that the supply can reach as the population increases, housing increases, too. So that it’s not just this one way ratchet. You know, I mean, it’s it’s a big discussion, I don’t want to monopolize, what is your interview on on this topic, but we wanted to at least touch on it. You know, it’s interesting.
I mean, I think of the issues that I focus on, I think there are similar considerations, right? So in the transportation planning realm, things like congestion pricing, or the pricing of on street parking. These are things that the theory is rock solid, in the same way that Landbay tax makes sense. And I think that the the conversations actually come down to political conversations of, you know, how do you adapt these things in ways that are how do you organize these things in ways that actually get passed? Right. So you mentioned just paying out a dividend? I think that that actually is pretty underrated as, as a policy mechanism, or, you know, in the parking context, right. I work with Donald shoot here at UCLA. And his idea of how do we get neighborhoods to voluntarily adopt on street parking pricing? Well, you set aside all the money that’s generated by streets in that neighborhood, and you put it into a pot for repaving streets in that neighborhood, planting street trees, you know, improving services in that community. So people can immediately see the benefits of the system, right, or, well, stuff like congestion pricing, you take some of that money, and you use it to improve the quality of transportation infrastructure, or just like you said, you just pay dividends. I mean, I think it’s it’s really fascinating, and I’m a little bit more, you know, curious about progress on that, you know, I, to my knowledge, there aren’t any cities talking about going over to pure land a tax I know Pennsylvania has, has pockets where they do split roll or something like that. But yeah, that would be an interesting. I mean, there are all these other conversations that need to happen to make cities work that I think like getting ladies finding fixed is like a near term thing. But you know, public finance and transportation planning are two other cans of worms that we can open up once we once we’ve solved housing affordability.
Well, I think there’s an LVT proposal in Richmond, Virginia, isn’t there? A big one right now? Yeah. Yeah. So there’s there it’s coming back. It used to be this thing. There was like kind of this crazy like, you know, idea that everyone had forgotten about. But it’s coming back in a lot of ways in small and incremental measures. But there’s a lot a lot of renewed interest in it. As you can tell along with just nimbyism together, they’re kind of correlated ideas for good reason, because they work together. You know, in my opinion,
I think ideas can move a lot quicker than we realize. I mean, if you had told me that California was going to effectively abolish single family zoning, in five years, if you told me that in 2016, I would think you’re completely crazy,
you could have made a lot of easy money off of me on a bet against it.
Right? Or if you had told me that, like, in 2022, most major cities, we’re going to have either abolish there’s minimum parking requirements, or we’re going to be pretty close to that. I would say like, Okay, you’re extremely optimistic, and God bless you.
And minimal parking requirements, or like, you must build this much for parking with each new development or whatever. Is that where you’re talking about specifically for the benefit of listers?
That’s correct. Yeah. So it says, If you want to build an apartment building, you have to also build a parking garage with one, one or two spaces per apartment. Or if you want to build a supermarket, you have to build a giant surface line. And this, this is one of those things that just when you understand these rules, and you know what they are, it’s it sort of helps you explain why the US urban landscape looks like what it does.
Can I just can I just segue back to the SimCity vision. One thing that’s really interesting is that if you go and you play SimCity, or the new incarnation by a totally different company, city skylines, you’ll notice the lack of parking, the conspicuous lack of parking, if you compare it to an overhead aerial photograph of actual American cities, like the amount of surface parking versus what you see in these little city planning games, it there’s like, there’s like no parking. And if you interview the developers are, like very aware of it. But they said, it’s like, well, if you do that the cities are ugly, and it’s not fun, and it’s not as interesting. And so we just kind of pretended that there’s infinite underground, just free parking for everything, like the little cards arrives at the building and then disappears. You know, and I think that’s kind of very telling that aesthetically, you know, like, we hang on, I have that preference. And, you know, but but in real life, like we have these, like splayed out parking lots just everywhere.
No, absolutely. I mean, this gets back to the way we started the conversation almost perfectly. You don’t have giant parking lots in some city. You, you’re not, there’s no threat that you’re gonna get fired. It’s sensitive, in a way that you might if you’re an actual city planner, there’s no public hearings, where people will show up at yelling, you know, so, you know, I comment on I did a 20 year retrospective on SimCity, in Reason magazine, and I tried to sort of comment on all of this and the irony of this game, inspiring a generation of people to go into city planning, and sort of the rude awakening that we all collectively got will be actually went out and discovered how dysfunctional US city planning institutions were. But like I was saying, I’m optimistic about a lot of this stuff. And I think there’s a lot of great people doing fantastic work. And we’re seeing really good policy ideas spread. And a lot of really great people enter the space and do really interesting research and activism. So I’m optimistic. And then of course, once my book comes out, it’ll, it’ll definitively solve all these problems. That’s great.
Well, Dylan, thank you so much for taking the time to come on today. I know we’ve got to get you to a class you’re teaching this evening. Where can people find your book? When’s it coming out? Where would you like to send people?
Sure, yeah. So you can preorder a book, it’s coming out in June, you can pre order pre orders open on Island Press or on Amazon. What’s the title again? arbitrary lines zoning book, The American city and how we’re going to fix it sounds like a great read. The working title was actually against zoning, but my editor insisted that that was a little too harsh. And he was obviously right. And that’s why editors, thoughts, that arbitrary lines, yes, open filters. And anytime I’m on Twitter, you know, I’m very chatty on Twitter as the as the safe haven for up activism. And also georgeous. So you can follow me there and Nolan gray. But thanks. Thanks again for having me. This is a really interesting conversation.
Now. Thanks very much, Nolan. I learned a lot I’m really interested in will have to make I’ll have to make some I’m actually a game developer as my actual job. So one day, I had kind of dreams of doing urbanist take on SimCity that like actually grapples with all the annoying things that are actually like, really, really salient?
Well, my, my little my issue with some city is you can’t do a city without zoning. You have to have zoning. So yeah,
it’s just it’s just assumed like I remember playing it on like the Super Nintendo and just being like, that’s how you make all cities ever and that’s just the basic of everything. I funfact. I never built any industrial zones in any my cities because I didn’t want any of the pollution. And so like I had cities where you could live and you could shop but you couldn’t work And somehow, you know, the the game never punished me for that which is layers. But you know what, at every single thing this was like kind of a prelude to what would happen in my life later at every little like time it would tell you what the issues and it was everyone was like housing costs are too high. And I was like, but what’s the problem? I increase the land value as much as possible. Why is everyone mad?
Well, yeah, it sounds it sounds only slightly more incoherent than the typical actuals and coordinates, right.
Well, no, we’re really glad you had us on and we that we had you on and we’ll thank you for allowing me to, you know, become your kind of stealth co host here. Just worming my way into the podcast.
Love it. Thanks, Nolan. Thank you. Bye.
Thanks for listening. We’ll be back next week with a new episode of narratives.
Join the discussion