Should More Land Use Professors be Libertarians?

Many professors who study land use and local government law, myself included, consider ourselves leftists rather than libertarians. That is, we have some confidence in the ability of government to solve social problems. Nevertheless, were you to pick up a randomly selected piece of left-leaning land use or local government scholarship (including my own) you would likely witness a searing indictment of the way local governments operate. You would read that the land use decisionmaking process is usually a conflict between deep-pocketed developers who use campaign contributions to elect pro-growth politicians and affluent homeowners who use their ample resources to resist change that might negatively affect their property values. Land use “planning” – never a great success to begin with – has largely been displaced by the “fiscalization” of land use, in which land use decisions are based primarily on a proposed land use’s anticipated contribution to (or drain upon) a municipality’s revenues. Public schools in suburban areas have essentially been privatized due to exclusionary zoning practices, and thus placed off limits to the urban poor, whereas public schools in cities have been plundered by ravenous teachers’ unions.

The organization of local governments, on the surface a merely technical matter, has fallen victim to a similar pattern of what public choice scholars call “rent-seeking.” Cities look to annex neighboring unincorporated areas in order to gobble up their tax base, while affluent small areas incorporate in order to resist the redistribution of wealth to poorer neighborhoods and prevent unwanted land use sitings. Metropolitan regions have been fragmented into dozens of little local fiefdoms, each acting with little regard for its neighbors. Sprawl, inefficiency, interlocal inequality and de facto racial segregation are the consequences, and the norm, in most metropolitan regions.

It hardly paints a pretty picture of local government. Yet, most leftists’ prescription is more government. The go-to leftist answer to local government parochialism and fragmentation is some form of regionalism – either a consolidation of small local governments into larger ones or a federation of local governments within a metropolitan structure containing powers to remedy maldistribution through tax-base sharing, regional land use powers, and the like. But the embarassing fact we must all admit is that regionalism has never really worked – and, in fact, never really been tried. Sure, places like Portland and the Twin Cities have taken steps toward regional government, but for a variety of reasons those examples are (a) not broadly exportable to other regions and/or (b) successful only to the extent that they jettison essential aspects of regionalism. In the Twin Cities, for example, the regional authority rarely engages in any region-wide land use planning, and all residential property is excluded from its tax-sharing scheme.

Much of regionalism’s appeal, it seems, is precisely its ahistoricism – it is sufficiently removed from the historical reality of local government as to be untainted by it. As Jane Jacobs said, “A region is an area safely larger than the last one to whose problem we found no solution.” So why would left-leaning scholars, who have seen so clearly the failures of local government, place so much faith in a largely untested restructuring of governmental institutions, rather than looking to less government as the solution? Libertarians often point out that Houston, the lone American metropolis without single-use zoning, has far lower housing prices than comparable cities elsewhere, and has become a magnet for young families and immigrants. What is holding leftists back from embracing Houston’s (sort of) free-market solution?

In a follow up post, I will provide my thoughts on this question. In the meantime, I welcome your comments.

 

Ken Stahl

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12 Responses

  1. Donald Pinto says:

    I look forward to your thoughts on this question. Massachusetts has a strong “home rule” tradition and the result is pervasive, smothering local control of land use via multiple, overlapping regulatory regimes (zoning, subdivision control, site plan review, wetlands protection, historic districts, and now, newly emerging “neighborhood conservation districts”). This is in addition to a thick layer of state regulations governing some of the same subject matter. In this environment it’s a minor miracle when anything gets built – especially low and middle-income housing – and many good projects die on the vine because of the time and money it takes to run this regulatory gauntlet. Not surprisingly, Massachusetts has some of the highest housing costs in the country and a dire shortage of low-income housing. I don’t have a solution for this complex problem, but I know that more government isn’t the answer.

  2. I look forward to your thoughts on this question. Massachusetts has a strong tradition of so-called home rule, which has spawned a pervasive and ever-expanding regime of local regulations that control land use at an almost microscopic level: zoning, subdivision control, site plan review, wetlands protection, historic districts, and now, newly-emerging “neighborhood conservation districts.” Every city and town has its own voluminous, overlapping sets of bylaws, rules and regulations, which are often poorly drafted if not inscrutable. This is in addition to a heavy layer of state law and regulations governing some of the same subject matter, but with different standards and procedures. It’s a minor miracle when anything gets built, and many good projects – especially low and middle-income housing – die on the vine because of the exorbitant amount of time and money it takes to run all these gauntlets. Unsurprisingly, Massachusetts is near the top of the list of states with the highest housing costs, and we have a crisis-level shortage of low-income housing. I don’t have a solution for this complex problem, but I’m quite sure that more government isn’t the answer.

  3. ErikKengaard says:

    *
    Altshuler, Gomez-Ibanez and Arnold M. Howitt present a rather comprehensive, and reasonble objective, overview of the issues of land use regulation in “Regulation for Revenue.”
    Randal O’Toole (American Nightmare), Sowell (The Housing Boom and Bust), and Gyourko & Gleaser (Rethinking Federal Housing Policy) present rather one-sided (and inaccurate) perspectives.
    To cite Houston as a paragon of free market housing is hardly objective. The terrain is flat as a pancake for miles (the variation in elevation is less than 100 feet), and its 2 million people inhabit an area of nearly 600 square miles with a population density approximately half of that of major California cities.

  4. ErikKengaard says:

    Altshuler, Gomez-Ibanez and Arnold M. Howitt present a rather comprehensive, and reasonble objective, overview of the issues of land use regulation in “Regulation for Revenue.”
    Randal O’Toole (American Nightmare), Sowell (The Housing Boom and Bust), and Gyourko & Gleaser (Rethinking Federal Housing Policy) present rather one-sided (and inaccurate) perspectives.
    To cite Houston as a paragon of free market housing is hardly objective. The terrain is flat as a pancake for miles (the variation in elevation is less than 100 feet), and its 2 million people inhabit an area of nearly 600 square miles with a population density approximately half of that of major California cities.

  5. MoreFreedom says:

    “… we have some confidence in the ability of government to solve social problems.”
    “Nevertheless, were you to pick up a randomly selected piece of left-leaning land use or local government scholarship (including my own) you would likely witness a searing indictment of the way local governments operate.”

    Apparently your “confidence in the ability of government to solve social problems” is incorrect.

    “What is holding leftists back from embracing Houston’s (sort of) free-market solution?”

    Embracing free markets, means taking the power from the government, to “solve social problems” via taxation and spending. It also threatens the incomes of professors who depend on the state to fund their universities, via taxation, and who seek income doing land use studies for government or for private developers when government mandates land use studies.

  6. Matt says:

    Don’t follow Houston’s pattern. No zoning results in a very ugly urban landscape.