“Zoning bigots” holding Americans back from how they really want to live?

It is not too often that one sees opinion pieces about the current state of zoning in America. But here is some provocative commentary (“zoning bigots”?) based on zoning in the Los Angeles area:

You could make a decent case that the campaign to harass and remove property owners is no less bigoted than Mayor Mahool’s quarantine proposal. Although blacks, whites, and Latinos have all been targeted for nuisance abatement raids, these folks share one characteristic: They don’t meet the standards of respectability set by the political class and large urban landowners. In some cases the county’s lifestyle demands shade into bias on religious grounds. Oscar Castaneda, a mechanic and Seventh Day Adventist minister who was ordered to tear down his entire property, lives in the high desert because his faith impels him to a rural, self-sufficient life.

Los Angeles zoning practice is bigoted in other ways that are often overt. A city (not county) ordinance preventing residents from keeping more than one rooster on a property is clearly aimed at Latino homeowners. A maze of restrictions on convenience stores and fast food joints applies in South L.A. but not in tonier areas. During the jihad against “McMansions” a few years ago, the popular term for large properties was “Persian Palaces”—a swipe at L.A.’s Iranian-American community.

“There’s definitely an attempt to squeeze out of Angelenos the very things that make them Angelenos and not New Yorkers or Bostonians,” says Chapman University urban theorist Joel Kotkin. “There are two forces at work: One is the effort to re-engineer people into wards of the state. The other is urban land interests who want to force people to live in ways they don’t want to live.”

Or to live somewhere else. Many of the Antelope Valley homeowners we spoke with for a recent reason.tv report have given up the struggle and are planning to leave California. What Antonovich (who refused requests for an interview) has in mind for their vacated properties is not clear. Educated guesses include a plan for massive wind-power generation and a scheme to turn the half-horse town of Palmdale into a high-density, smart-growth hub for the California high-speed rail project. If you know Palmdale you know that the notion of turning it into a hipster paradise would be funny—except that this pipe dream is destroying the lives of real people. They’re just not the right sort of people.

A few thoughts while trying to sort out this argument:

1. Good point: zoning can be a tool used by the powerful (politicians, those with money, etc.) to control development. The political economy model in urban sociology is based on this idea: the elite are able to push development that helps make them money.

2. Odd point: this argument about “bigoted zoning” is somewhat different from a more common argument about “exclusionary zoning.” This argument is predicated on the idea that zoning takes away the rights of all individuals, regardless of race/ethnicity or social class. It is simply a tool of the upper classes, interestingly, a Marxist type argument. Exclusionary zoning, the subject of a number of court cases, argues that zoning takes place to exclude certain groups of people, typically minorities and the lower class from suburbs. So all individuals who are not the upper class are being discriminated against in this Marxist/populist argument?

3. Somewhat intriguing argument: these zoning guidelines limit people from doing what they really want to do, like buy McMansions and raise chickens. In this line of thinking, Americans all want the suburban lifestyle where their home is their castle and they have a little bit of land to play around with. The government is a bogeyman, trying to force people into denser developments (like nice New Urbanist developments or high-rises downtown?) and generally trying to squelch suburban life.

This argument misses some of why the suburbs even exist in the United States today. On one hand, there is some cultural impetus to this all: from the beginning, Americans have had debates about urban vs. rural life, the Thomas Jefferson’s who wanted “gentlemen farmers” versus the Alexander Hamilton’s who wanted to live in thriving cities. Americans like open space and retained the British emphasis on property rights. This cultural spirit is still with us today: we love cars and our big homes.

However, this was all made possible and encouraged by some other factors. To start, developing technologies, from the railroad to the electric streetcar to the automobile, opened up areas for development. More importantly, developers and businessmen saw these transportation lines and the adjacent land as opportunities so they sold homes and land to make money. Then, particularly between the 1930s and 1960s, the government made a concerted push to promote the suburban lifestyle, privileging highway construction and longer-term mortgages that helped make the suburban dream possible. Without this profit seeking and government support, would the suburbs have still happened? Perhaps. But not likely to the scale we know now.

To argue now that generally government is opposed to the suburban life is silly. Most of the policies, even during this time of economic crisis, have been about maintaining the suburban middle-class lifestyle: limiting their tax burden, helping them keep their homes, ensuring a quality education and a college degree, etc. Yes, this current administration has suggested some new ideas like high-speed rail but this isn’t a total assault on the suburbs. Indeed, it would be tough for any party right now to assault the suburbs too strongly: they probably can’t win without suburban voters, particularly independents.

4. Flip this around: what might happen if there is no zoning? Does this really empower individual land owners? Zoning helps ensure that certain uses are not next to other uses. For example, zoning for a suburban subdivision typically means that a single-family home will not end up next to a coal power plant. Or a school next to a sewage treatment plant. Yes, zoning can be draconian and it can be used by people in power but it can also be used well.

There are cities that have less or no zoning. Houston is a classic example in urban sociology and as one might suspect, its development patterns look a bit different than other major cities.

Is no zoning really the answer? While homeowners might not like some of the plans in the Los Angeles region, doesn’t it also protect them at other times? In a world with no zoning, wouldn’t the more powerful actors almost always win out over the average homeowner? How would homeowners protect themselves from other homeowners?

One way to retain zoning but turn it toward different ends would be for citizens to get themselves on zoning boards and then starting voting how they like. Zoning boards may not be flashy and it can be difficult to get on them, particularly in places where it is about political connections, but this would be the place to start fighting back if one was inclined to do so.

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