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It’s Time to Abolish Single-Family Zoning (theamericanconservative.com)
106 points by pseudolus 36 days ago | hide | past | favorite | 158 comments

I wonder if COVID-19 will have any lasting effect on housing patterns.

I used to be very pro-density in terms of my own preference of where to live, and I’ve never lived in the suburbs or in a single family home in my adult life.

I’m finding it very challenging while locked down though, it’s making me realize I actually do value having my own space that I can own and control. I’m pretty introverted to begin with but I’ve never minded living in a big building with a bunch of strangers, but now that I see many of these strangers doing things that potentially endanger my health like walking around without masks, having illegal gatherings, and begging the management to reopen our gym in the middle of this pandemic, my outlook has completely changed. Even once this pandemic ends, I imagine I will think differently about the trade offs and risks of living in such close quarters with so many people I don’t know.

This is not exactly related to single family zoning, but in the same vein I imagine if I had a single family home and someone wanted to build a huge apartment building next to me right now, I would be unhappy for the same reasons. I’ve always been morally against NIMBYism on principle, but to be honest this pandemic has really started to change my perspectives.

I disagree, cities have survived worse pandemics than todays. This is why we have parks and pedestrians streets in Europe. What I see is a more livable cities across North America, like NYC or DC.

My guess is that the lasting effects on housing patterns from COVID-19 will be in the form of more people working from home more of the time.

I’m surprised that free market enthusiasts don’t see zoning laws as a limitation of freedom, even though it’s probably the most direct limitation by government today.

There could be so much innovation in solving the NIMBY problem. Make a cash payment to neighbors while construction is happening to compensate for the nuisance, give them equity in your new building if their view is damaged, obligate builders to also build bus stops/bike lanes/whatever to make the streets navigable with high density, mixed use construction with privacy to avoid strangers.

So many problems that people have with construction can be solved and incentives aligned if people had the ability to try to convince their neighbors.

Instead we’ve ended up with city councils that have high incumbency rates because voting in city elections is cumbersome requiring you to convince the whole city to change zoning rather than just your neighbors.

And I’m surprised politically liberal people aren’t even more in favor. So many people want to move to the west coast but can’t due to cost of living. Instead they move to the south and southwest. Even if California got a million staunch republicans, the state would vote democratic overall and get more electoral votes. In fact, I wonder if some of our political polarization is the consequence of reduced mobility due to high housing costs for new people.

I’m hopeful the millennial generation fixes federal housing policy. That alone would be a meaningful contribution to society.

If you’re surprised they’re not, it’s because you’re not looking. The actual free market enthusiasts condemn it extensively.

Go over to reason.com and search for their zoning coverage. Go to the AEI and find their report calling for the abolition of single family zoning. (I’d send you links, but I’m on a phone.)

The main difference between them and the more left-leaning types who hate single family zoning is that they’re not too big on replacing it with other zoning.

> I’d send you links, but I’m on a phone.

Off topic but I feel like this all the time too. What do you think would have to change about your phone to not feel like this? Voice commands? UI changes?

Finding stuff is a little slower and harder because of the small screen. Selecting text (e.g., to get a reasonably-sized URL) is massively painful. Copy-and-paste with long presses is finicky (often you end up moving the selection by mistake). Bleh. Forget it.

Compared to a PC, copying and pasting on a phone is physically laborious. Switching to the app, selecting the text, switching back, possibly fiddle with the cursor position and then finally pasting by waiting for the phone to interpret a long press as a paste command. It all sucks.

It would be nice if I could enter copy/paste mode, and when in that mode I had a mouse cursor that I could move by holding my finger above the screen (so I can see the cursor), and basically use my finger like a virtual mouse during the cut/paste operation.

On android you can tap and hold the spacebar to slide the cursor around.

I'd love to have a phone case with a flip down physical keyboard and a dot like on a ThinkPad. Think, old school game boy.

For the rest of my problems,we just need better integration and customization. My last two phones have pop out drawers pinned to the sides. This can be taken much further to provide instant access to the clip tray, contacts,messages,emails, bookmarks, calender, password manager, and on and on. But no. I get notifications from the top, which has the customizability of a closed source terminal. From the bottom I have a barebones task bar. And I can pin 5apps to a pinned button that I can dock up and down either side. Can't even change its color tough. My current phone is leagues more powerful than my first smart phone, but my first was more usable and customizable.

On iPhone you can either press and hold space bar (older iPhones with a physical home button) or press and hold the empty space below the space bar (newer iPhones with FaceID) to slide the cursor around with accuracy.

I'm off the phone now. Let's taste a sample of free market enthusiasts inveighing against zoning. These are just some of the ones that were easy to find:

American Enterprise Institute ("a public policy think tank dedicated to defending human dignity, expanding human potential, and building a freer and safer world. The work of our scholars and staff advances ideas rooted in our belief in democracy, free enterprise ...")

https://www.aei.org/op-eds/to-solve-the-problem-of-unafforda... (Dec 2019): "To solve the problem of unaffordable entry-level housing, abolish single-family zoning. Allowing 2-, 3- and 4-family structures amid single-family homes could add 10% to today’s housing stock"

https://www.aei.org/economics/a-different-take-on-americas-h... (2018): "Demand is too high, supply is too low, therefore role back regulations on land-use and zoning and allow the market to work. As Fisher put it, if cities start “allowing townhomes and duplexes and places that were originally single-family homes to be redeveloped into 20 unit buildings, I think you would see the market take care of itself."

https://www.aei.org/research-products/report/a-plea-for-beau... (2012): "Zoning contributes to the dereliction of the city when its local industries die and ensures that the central areas are not places of renewal, but at best museums and at worst vandalized spaces no one can use. In successful cities like Paris, New York, and Rome, workshops, apartments, offices, schools, churches, and theaters all stand side by side, with houses borrowing walls from whatever building has a boundary to spare."

Let's go over to Reason, a little more strident with their opinions. Their magazine bears the slogan, "free minds and free markets". And let us see how long they have opposed it. Looks like they've done so since... NINTEEN SEVENTY SIX. I was not alive in 1976. My parents were alive, but not old enough to vote. So let's take a look at the legacy our grandfathers' generation has left us.

https://reason.com/1976/01/01/the-case-against-land-use-plan... "WHO LOSES? The results of land use legislation will be particularly harmful to the less well-to-do, since they are least able to cope with higher prices."

"Section 509(d) provides that nothing in the Act shall be construed to "enhance or diminish the rights of owners of property as provided by the Constitution of the U.S. and the constitution and laws of the states in which the property is located." For Howard Hughes that may be comforting. But for the small landowner it is close to meaningless. No matter how wicked and confiscatory a regulation is, a bolt from heaven will not strike it dead. It can only be declared unconstitutional by a court of law, and this means that an owner must be in a position to use costly and lengthy court processes to sue for such a ruling. The situation faced by affluent owners would be entirely different from that of the less affluent."

They lost that round pretty badly, though. Within a decade the magazine had moved from forecasting the inevitable consequences to documenting them.

https://reason.com/1986/02/01/zoning-revolutionary/ "Zoning contributes to housing shortages and holds down commercial development; it adds paperwork and years and political shenanigans to land-use changes; and, ominously, it is used to exclude "undesirables.""

https://reason.com/1990/10/01/zoning/ "As zoning laws continue to keep the dream of affordable housing just that, a dream, one usually apolitical group is calling for a change. Habitat for Humanity International says zoning laws, along with prohibitive development fees, often undermine its nonprofit efforts to build "simple, decent" housing for the nation's poor."

https://reason.com/2013/05/07/zoning-kills-affordable-housin... "Zoning Kills Affordable Housing: How established homeowners use regulations to stop new low-cost homes." (Book review)

https://reason.com/2014/11/16/washingtons-beautiful-illegal/ "Washington's Beautiful, Illegal Tiny Houses: Architectural minimalism runs afoul of outdated regulations in the nation's capital."

https://reason.com/2015/07/26/zoning-out-the-poor/ "Zoning out the poor". In case you thought libertarians and free markets were all about pooh-poohing the poor.

https://reason.com/2017/05/25/residential-zoning-in-new-york... "Zoning Laws in New York, San Francisco, and San Jose Cut Americans' Wages by $8,775 / And they've made the U.S. economy 9 percent smaller than it would it otherwise be."

https://reason.com/2018/08/14/ben-carson-calls-out-zoning-re... "Ben Carson Calls Out Zoning Regulations for Driving Up Housing Costs: The HUD Secretary wants to revise Obama-era housing regulations he says do too little to address the real drivers of housing costs."

https://reason.com/2018/12/10/progressive-minneapolis-just-p... "Progressive Minneapolis Just Passed One of the Most Deregulatory Housing Reforms in the Country: Urban liberals are won over to libertarian policies, if not libertarian politics."

https://reason.com/2019/02/08/zoning-makes-the-green-new-dea... "Zoning Makes the Green New Deal Impossible: A bad idea is made worse by its inability to grapple with local land use restrictions."

https://reason.com/2020/04/18/cant-afford-your-rent-blame-he... "Can't Afford Your Rent? Blame Herbert Hoover. The feds pushed cities to implement zoning restrictions. High prices and social inequality were the inevitable results."

https://reason.com/2020/07/02/empowered-by-excessive-regulat... "Zoning and other municipal regulations give busybodies a license to harass people they don't like and force others to conform to subjective standards as they see fit."

That last one was literally posted yesterday, just to show you that they're still doing it.

Oh, and one more classic, just to consider it in light of current events: https://reason.com/1984/10/01/telecommuting-will-the-plug-be... "Telecommuting: Will the Plug be Pulled? ... The prospect of such a dramatic increase [in telecommuting] has not been universally welcomed."

""Those of us who plop down our Apples in the office at home or in the rec room are probably not in any danger of violating any local ordinances," commented former Labor Department assistant secretary Donald Elisburg recently. "But if the work stations spread and it becomes popular, there may be more consideration of local zoning laws as to whether such installations are permitted.""

"Yes, zoning laws. In general, local zoning laws already regulate any work done in the home in some manner and often require home businesses to obtain permits. Thus far, such laws have rarely been used against telecommuters. Chicago is an exception. Its city code stipulates that except for certain professionals, who may use their residences for "consultation, emergency treatment, or performance of religious rites," all home work is taboo when it involves the "installation or use of any mechanical or electrical equipment customarily incident to the practice of any such professions. [...] "The law is one of the nation's most restrictive," [Professor William Toner] told me. "It's structured so that there's a good chance it would be illegal for Saul Bellow to write a Nobel Prize–winning novel at home.""

Excellent work. Thanks for putting all this together.

If it helps. I'm a free market type.

We've been railing against zoning regulations for decades.

Here's an article from Mises.org (about as free-market as you can find) from 2010 railing against it:


>Make a cash payment to neighbors while construction is happening to compensate for the nuisance, give them equity in your new building if their view is damaged, obligate builders to also build bus stops/bike lanes/whatever to make the streets navigable with high density, mixed use construction with privacy to avoid strangers.

Half of what you say is indistinguishable from zoning (the transit part). The other half runs into the problem of people not agreeing to the compensation.

The reality is that what you do on your property impacts my property and utilizes public resources. There has to be some mechanism to regulate that and enforce those regulations. The problem isn't the concept of zoning but how it has been applied.

> I’m surprised that free market enthusiasts don’t see zoning laws as a limitation of freedom

We do.

> I’m surprised that free market enthusiasts don’t see zoning laws as a limitation of freedom...

They do, not just in academia as other comments have observed, but in practice (consider Houston)


Robert Conquest’s First Laws of Politics:

Everyone is conservative about what he knows best.

IMO there is a lot of intellectual dishonesty among many self professed free market enthusiasts. For example, a dogged insistence that externalities don't actually exist, or wait they could exist but in practice never will, or maybe they do exist but will never be large, actually it doesn't matter, the important thing is that we don't do anything about them.

I wanted to call myself libertarian-minded for a while but the practice just doesn't seem to match the fundamental principals.

> I’m surprised that free market enthusiasts don’t see zoning laws as a limitation of freedom

I do. However, I grew up in Houston which doesn’t have zoning. When I lived in Jersey City about 8 years ago and was working on the Steve Fulop campaign, I was amazed at how vicious zoning and variance fights could become. Zoning and the fights over it are exceptional hotbeds of corruption.

This dude got famous after a zoning fight: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marvin_Heemeyer

Something that is not touched on in the post but the book The Color of Law touches on in depth is how single family zoning has strong racist motivations. There are many Suburban areas that had the exclusion of black people as a requirement for Federal financial support. These include areas such as Stanford/Palo Alto and Long Island in NY but the list is numerous.

That is a great book. There are so many things people don’t know, such has how FDR’s WPA tore down integrated neighborhoods and replaces them with segregated ones: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/how-federal-governmen...

> In Langston Hughes’ autobiography, he describes how he lived in an integrated neighborhood in Cleveland. His best friend in high school was Polish. He dated a Jewish girl. That neighborhood in Cleveland was razed by the WPA, which built two segregated [ones], one for African-Americans, one for whites. The Depression gave the stimulus for the first civilian public housing to be built. Were it not for that policy, many of these cities might have developed with a different residential pattern.

FTA: "The progressive left has discovered that single-family zoning has racist underpinnings. That’s great, because we should now have no problem finding common cause for repealing this most distorting of regulations, one that the federal government never should have forced cities to adopt to begin with."

Since when has zoning ever had anything to do with the Feds short of Department of the Interior/Bureau of Land Management?

I'll accept at one time public works implementation of utility infrastructure may have skewed things, but I was pretty sure issues of zoning were predominantly local affairs.

> Since when has zoning ever had anything to do with the Feds short of Department of the Interior/Bureau of Land Management?

What is it with this thread and not reading the article?

"The first of many ironies, of course, is that single-family zoning became the standard for American suburbs during the New Deal when the Roosevelt administration, through various programs such as the Home Owners Loan Corporation, required it for home refinancing assistance.

These onerous regulations were further mandated for new construction by the Federal Housing Administration as well as the government-sponsored enterprises Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac."

It is briefly mentioned at the end of the article as a way to find common cause with the left on this issue.


Why would right-wingers reference their own racist culpability when they can blame the government instead?

Would you please stop using HN primarily for ideological battle? It's against the rules because it destroys what this site exists for, and we ban accounts that do it regardless of which ideology they favor.



This website is extremely ideological. It's just primarily tech bro ideology. This post is from The American Conservative, a proudly ideological right-wing publication. By eliminating dissent you're only making the echo chamber louder.

Nobody is eliminating dissent. Threads on divisive topics are filled with disagreement. It's flamewar comments that are the problem, because flamewars are so stupid, so predictable, and so nasty. They're the worst thing that group dynamics lead to on internet forums. On HN, we want thoughtful, curious conversation. If you don't want to post in that spirit, please don't post. If you're interested in using the site as intended, please read https://news.ycombinator.com/newsguidelines.html and take the intended spirit to heart.

I have no idea what "tech bro ideology" is but whatever politics you favor, I can give you a long list of comments bitterly complaining that HN is dominated by it and the mods are secretly conspiring to suppress everybody else. Edit: actually here you go—see the list here: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=23807579

All such comments are the same—the righties say it and the lefties say it, everyone says it. It is pure cognitive bias.

I'd also be in favor of getting rid of parking minimums in cities and just about everywhere else - an enormous benefit to car, oil and construction companies that just degrades the environment.

Which will tank home prices because suburbia is genuinely not livable without a vehicle.

Public transportation doesn’t work since people are super spread out, all commercial activity is miles away, your work is probably 20-60 min away by car.

Abolishing parking minimums or generally discouraging cars in isolation just makes everyone worse off. You have to make the area livable without a vehicle first.

Increased density makes public transport more viable. If you outlaw density increase, you're definitely not going to get good public transport.

Let's face it, public transportation has not proved to be very helpful during the COVID-19 pandemic. Here in Germany, private cars have saved our butt. I have become much more sceptical towards public transport in the last few months.

How has Japan/South Korea worked around that? When I think of countries with crowded public transit, Japan is always top of mind, but they seem to have avoided a lot of the virus transmission problems you'd think would have been associated with that.

Maybe, but on the other hand New York has fared tremendously bad. And in Germany the public transport was working, but almost completely empty. Very few were using it, everybody else relied on private cars.

That's what I mean though - what are places like Tokyo doing that Berlin isn't in this case? Or is the Tokyo subway as abandoned as NYC's these days?

Because car ownership in much cheaper in Berlin and Germany as a whole than in Tokyo so even if public transport would be safe in Berlin as it is in Tokyo, if people are afraid of exposure, the Berliners have private alternatives while people of Tokyo have to shrug it off on take the subway.

But then wouldn't more people in Tokyo be catching the virus because they're taking a train where they're in close poorly-ventilated proximity to a lot of other people?

But instead, we're seeing their case load actually stay fairly reasonable compared to NYC or Berlin, where there's more car usage.

Allowing developers to decide to have a few fewer spots in new developments isn't going to change anything over night. Framing public transport and car diets as a chicken-and-egg problem helps nobody, they need to happen simultaneously; because your sentiment is right: why have one without the other?

But it’s not a chicken/egg problem! It’s just that you have to have the carrot before you can start using the stick.

People are just trying to live their lives. Inconveniencing vehicle users won’t actually change anything because they have zero power over the “vision” of their area and zoning. The change has to come from the city planners first.

I would love love love to not need a car. And my area is pouring millions in mixed use land projects to make it happen. It’s a decades long project.

Let me double-down on a bolder argument. Removing minimums doesn't inconvenience vehicle users. It doesn't remove any parking spots that already exist. It doesn't bring in more vehicles than previously existed. If a new business expects to rely on driving customers, it will still build parking. If a new housing development expects to attract driving residents, it will still build parking for them.

There are plenty of people who don't drive and currently have to pay a slight premium for a parking space they don't use. The market currently cannot efficiently serve those people. I am one of those people. Removing parking minimums helps people like me, and honestly doesn't effect people like you. Just because such a change wouldn't do anything in particular to help vehicle owners doesn't mean it's going to hurt them either.

The worry that motivates parking minimums is, if your street has 1 parking spot per home, and my street has 0.5 parking spots per home, that car owners will buy homes on my street anyway, and they'll park on your street when there's no space on mine.

This is called 'displaced parking' and it's a pretty well known problem among parking planners. You'll get the same thing if, for example, the college campus starts charging $5 to park when students can park for free on nearby streets and walk.

You can get around this with parking permits and towing everywhere in walking distance - but you can't be timid and imagine the new street won't interact with other parking locally.

If a developer doesn't include parking spots in a building, can't you just not go there? It's their choice to not prioritize customers using cars.

Not having a parking minimum doesn't mean that people won't build parking. Just that they aren't forced to if it doesn't make sense.

The flip side to this is that it doesn't work in the context of on street parking. Or at least it allows some freeloaders to overwhelm the public resource.

But that's kind of the point for them. The goal is to make cars unviable so that people are forced to use public transportation.

100% of the time, companies will do what is either cheapest or stands to make them the most money in the long run.

That's why you need regulations like minimum parking, otherwise companies would completely forgo parking if they could get away with it.

So it really does mean that they won't build parking.

I dont think that's right. Nobody would build a suburban mall without parking. Nobody would go there since they wouldn't be able to park their car.

Developers would weigh the cost of building parking against the benefit it provides. Some would still build lots of parking but others might not.

Sure, you can't predict which way any given company will go in a situation like this, but my initial statement is still true. Minimizing costs and maximizing profits is always what companies do absent any external factors.

Consider the following scenario: Walmart builds a new store with lots of parking, and across the road a Target opens and they gamble on having no parking since the Walmart lot is just across the street. Target saves a lot of money this way, so they're incentivised to not build parking.

Imagine that Walmart knows this might happen, and so they choose not to build the parking because they don't want to subsidize Target's parking. Now two huge stores go up with no or minimal parking. It's a prisoner's dilemma brought on by lack of regulation.

In your scenario Walmart wouldn't allow Target's customers to park in their lot.

Target would have to weigh the costs/benefits and decide if they wanted their own lot. In some locations that decision might be no or a small lot. But they can't choose that because it's against the law.

Or perhaps the first store would make the second store's clients pay for the parking. How this usually works: a store or shopping center has paid parking, but if you buy more than R$ XX at that store or shopping center, the parking fee is waived.

Companies will build things that people will pay for. If you can pay for a garage, you will have no problem finding one. If you don't want to pay for parking, you're not forced to.

If not building parking is going to tank the sales price they can get for their new development, which is the concern that was expressed, then they will build parking.

Abolishing minimums won’t do any of those things. It will allow the market to dictate how much parking is valued. In sparse suburbs parking levels would likely remain about the same, since as you point out, living there without a car is very challenging. In more dense areas (or near reasonable quality transit) developers can forgo some parking previously required and offer more units.

That’s easily solvable with park and ride sites. I’d argue the biggest issue with implementing this is a no-can-do attitude, because it’s actually a positive feedback loop which needs to be cut without remorse.

Park and rides suck. It’s the worst of both worlds: I still have to drive. Then on top of that, I have to wait for a bus and ride on a bus with a bunch of other (potentially infectious) people.

Abolishing minimums does allow you to do things like build a nice compact downtown with lots of parking on the edges. Drive to downtown, park, walk a hundred yards to your destination.

"tank home prices" - isn't the US supposed to be a free market economy? Price controls only exist in states with planned economies.

The free market would react to a lack of parking/transportation and fewer buyers will want to buy those houses and thus the prices will tank.

Nobody is talking about price controls.

Actually parking minimums are the price control, keeping prices higher than they may be without them. So someone is...

For distances of 10 miles or less, a bicycle would work as a vehicle.

It’s going to be 104 degrees where I am this weekend in Central Texas. Nobody wants to ride a bicycle for non-fitness/fun purposes in that sort of heat. And it’s 50% humidity as well. Ten miles in Amsterdam is much different than ten miles in Phoenix or Texas or New Orleans.

I disagree, I road my bike in Phoenix in middle of June by +100ºF. What was awful was the lack of infrastructure, and car drivers who have no idea how to use an oversize roads with oversized vehicle and no one else.

Biking on a hot day with a nice hat at a leisure pace is fine. Specially if you provide safe environment.

> What was awful was the lack of infrastructure

On lower speed roads with frequent intersections, that infrastructure causes more problems than it's worth because it makes intersection navigation far more hazardous than just using the roadway like any other vehicle.

Bike infrastructure does not mean separate path ways. It can simply be normal 6' lanes for cars, and 4' lane for unmotorized vehicle (bike, skateboard, rollerblades, etc.)

Are you using ' to denote feet? Most general travel lanes are 10 to 14 feet wide. The 2012 AASHTO Guide for the Development of Bicycle Facilities states that the minimum operating width for a cyclist is 4 feet with a preferred operating width of 5 feet.

A lot of bike lanes, in my experience, are of substandard width and, as a consequence, result in closer passes/overtakes by cars in the adjacent general purpose lane because of the lack of sufficient width in the bike lane and the fact that motorists tend to drift from side to side within their lane during the normal course of driving (especially when the road has a curve).

So, riding in the bike lane actually makes things worse for the cyclist in terms of dealing with overtaking traffic compared to riding in the center of the general purpose lane.

I agree with you. But until drivers can handle cyclist in the middle of the lane without road rage and dangerous behaviour, and that we stop considering vehicle manslaughter has "accident", then I'm all for it.

> But until drivers can handle cyclist in the middle of the lane without road rage and dangerous behaviour

My personal experience (over the last 15 years) has been that the vast majority of drivers will treat it as a non-event and just change lanes to pass/overtake. The real danger is a motorist who doesn't notice you until it's too late to avoid a collision. If someone uses their horn or shouts at you, then at least you know they've seen you.

You're in the minority. No way am I nor any of my friends riding our bikes here in Phoenix during the summer.

I cycle in 90 °F pretty frequently without issue. As long as you keep yourself hydrated and don't overexert yourself, you should be fine. On the other hand, you need to be careful not to burn yourself when getting into a car in that heat.

I agree, just raise the price of gas by 10, then people might reconsider where to park, shop, and live.

I feel like you assume people have way more financial independence than they actually do. Yes there are very wealthy burbs but they’re the outlier and most people are fleeing outside the city, and hence becoming dependent on personal vehicles, because it’s where they can afford to live.

Like if you can afford to live downtown in my city you’re either really well off because $/sq ft. is astronomical or are some combination of young, single, and childless so you can put up with living in a studio/small 1 bedroom.

you need both the stick and the carrot

Removing parking minimums means that all the new residents still have cars and park on the street, thus making it impossible for my friends and family to find parking when they come to visit.

What do you mean by new residents? Is the number of net residents increasing? Parking minimums just mean that developers aren't forced to include parking, which raises prices. Developers can still add them if they want

Over my dead body. Seriously, I lived in all kinds of apartments for 15 years and there will always be some kind of horrific nuissance no matter how hard everyone tries to be respectful of each other.

I'm all for increasing density, go ahead and build your buildings higher.

But don't do it at the expense of people who are willing to pay high premiums to have a small piece of land to avoid the noise, smell, polution, and crowding of apartments.

The article is calling for the abolition of single-family zoning, not the imposition of zoning laws that mandate the construction of multi-family dwellings. Essentially, the author is a property rights proponent - if you own the land you should be able to construct whatever premises pleases you on it.

I'm a pretty big fan of high density housing, and in theory I like the idea of "if you own the land do what you want with it" but I saw the extreme end of this in a neighborhood where I lived. See for yourself (Google Street View below, do a 360 around the block)

Some thoughts: - 12story building next to 1story bungalow

- no mandate on 12story building to create parking per unit, so the entire block is flooded with cars trying to find places to park (also, this is the city, so many homes have no garage, you rely on street parking)

- tons of circling cars looking for parking all the time

- school not planned for the neighborhood. Sure, you built a 12story x 4unit = 48unit apartment, but there are no places in the school for the ~50 additional kids who suddenly appear. Yes you are guaranteed a seat in a school, but that could be 8 schools away and your kids can be in different schools depending on grade overflow levels

- giant garbage trucks (building-sized) coming and going into your otherwise quiet neighborhod

- giant A/C units pumping air for the whole building next to a 1story home


The developer will pay fees to manage garbage collection and school size increase when getting a permit. This is a city issue not a density problem.

Parking on the street is not a right but a public good. Everyone share, this has nothing to do with land owned per citizen. Raise the price of street parking. Again Parking is not a right, it's a commodity, and people should pay a market price for it.

>> The developer will pay fees to manage garbage collection and school size increase when getting a permit. This is a city issue not a density problem.

This map is from NYC. The neither the developer nor the permit increases the school size, the school is the same size it has been for decades.

Totally agree this is a city issue. I think the core problem is that everything needs to go in lockstep -- agreeing to, say, free-for-all zoning but handwaving all other problems as things the "market will solve" doesnt work because the solution doesnt come for years, or decades. For this to work, it all needs to happen synchronously. It clearly didn't, as evidenced by NYC's public school registration waiting lists.

A great solution I saw (same city) was when the developer built a public school for lease in the bottom floors of the high-rise to accommodate the influx of families. This is very, very rare in NYC though. Usually its a move-fast-and-break-things approach.

I also agree paid parking would solve the problem. But saying it "should" happen without joining it to zoning changes achieves nothing -- it just waves away the problem with a theoretically perfect solution. The zoning change would have been a great thing if it came with a long series of simultaneous changes in other policies from school size to paid parking.

This reminds me of a story from an acquaintance who was a dairy farmer. The jurisdiction passed a referendum mandating all eggs farmed would be free-range eggs. This tripled costs and raised the break-even price of eggs. The jurisdiction did not include on the referendum a restriction against importing non-free-range eggs. After the law went into effect, most voters who happily voted for the restriction continued to purchase inexpensive non-free-range imported eggs. My friend's egg farm went bankrupt. This could have been solved with a synchronous policy.

Your experiences make sense with such an extreme difference in uses. That said, in another comment (https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=23723331#23724541), cesarb made this point well:

> Abolishing single family zoning does not imply abolishing all zoning.

One can concurrently believe that some zoning is reasonable (or at least that some zoning is much less likely to have unintended effects), and also that single-family is unnecessary. As an easy example, in most jurisdictions single-family excludes duplexes and triplexes. Those don't have any of the problems you described.

SFH zoning is unique because it's so prescriptive about the allowed uses, it covers a huge percentage of residential land (https://www.seattletimes.com/business/real-estate/amid-seatt...), and it has a 75 year head start (current zoning is not what anyone would create anew today). High impact and little room to adapt to the actual market.

(Parking is its own challenge: https://www.vox.com/2014/6/27/5849280/why-free-parking-is-ba.... The root cause is that it's dramatically underpriced, so people have started to treat an extreme subsidy like a right.)

The free market could solve the school and road and parking problems too.

Not really, this seems like a textbook example of a property developer dumping negative externalities on the surrounding neighborhood.

If the public schools were disbanded and parents could purchase appropriate schooling for each child then public schools would not be “dumped on”.

Please elaborate.

Should you be able to trade your right to construct whatever you want in exchange for a legally enforced expectation that your neighbors will be similarly restricted in what they can build? Plenty of people would like to voluntarily enter that arrangement. Same with short term rentals - many people would like to trade their right to run a hotel out of their residence in exchange for a legally enforced expectation that they won't end up living next to a hotel.

Yes, but the law should enforce your agreement with your neighbors, not obligate you to form an agreement as it does today.

I think the biggest issue in zoning is the lack of a path to unzone something. If I convince all my immediate neighbors to let me build up (perhaps by giving them some equity in the new building) I should be allowed by the law to build. Today, even if my whole block wants to build up, we cannot.

Yes, good point. I would support a more local regulation on much of this (same for Airbnb, I see no reason why people in the sunset should determine whether people in bernal can short term rent their properties).

Personally, I don't think you should have to get universal agreement either. Maybe a simple majority? Life does chance, cities grow to new borders, single family zoning that made sense a generation ago can be absurd later.

As for zoning vs private contract... well, for historical reasons, that's just how it works in older urban neighborhoods. That's the mechanism by which these property rights are decided. It's not ideal. But at my core, I do think the right to live in areas with certain building restrictions is a kind of personal property right just as real as the right to build whatever you want.

> Should you be able to trade your right to construct whatever you want in exchange for a legally enforced expectation that your neighbors will be similarly restricted in what they can build?

This is an excellent point.

Zoning ensures you can buy a nice quite house which is surrounded by other nice quiet houses and they won't be suddenly replaced by high-rise buildings. For most people housing is their single largest asset and asking them to "just move" is not a particularly nice solution

Without legislated zoning this would still be possible but only in gated communities or similar. I'm not particularly familiar with US law in this area but local regulation seems to be a reasonable way to accomplish this.

Where I live a lot of people are complaining about the opposite problem: developers are constructing 7-story buildings in quiet areas, sometimes just outright replacing green spaces.

I personally live in a very crowded central area but still believe that suburban areas should be accommodated.

Should such an arrangement be subsidized by federal mortgage subsidy and federal road subsidies?

My answer? No. I'd support ending these subsidies.

There are a lot of factors here - property taxes are also sky high for new buyers, so it's a little difficult to consider this one question purely in isolation.

This is an excellent point, but I don't think that zoning laws are a good fit for that. Zoning laws can be changed (and often are) by a town council or other governing body regardless of what the land owners want. A permanent easement that can be put on one's own property that restricts what one can do on it is much more effective, and is exactly what you're talking about (trading a development right). In my state we have many properties that are covered by conservation easements; these are permanent easements attached to the property that prevent most development and grant some state tax relief. It also obviously negatively impacts land value, but it's voluntary on the part of the land owner.

> Plenty of people would like to voluntarily enter that arrangement.

This is still available as a covenant, which encumbers the property deed with restrictions on use. If a bunch of neighbors on a block decide to do encumber their own deeds, they can.

Ridiculous. Completely hypothetical argument devoid of any real-world considerations.

Reducto ad absurdem -- A single crack-house can bring down the value of every house in the neighborhood by 100k or more.

Housing has huge externalities (traffic, parking, noise, crime, property values) and a lot of what makes a property a "good" property is having an area where those externalities are controlled so you can walk your dog safely at night.

Just no. Your ability to enjoy your land is you ability to enjoy the land around it. You want like for like in your neighborhood and don't expect sudden radical change. You don't want an apt complex right next door to your expensive house. I didn't pay the premium for that and suddenly don't want it invading my neighborhood. Zoning enforces consistency and if it sounds snobby then it probably is. People get tired of dealing with neighbors and the dramas and want space by moving to such zoned locations. They don't want to deal with new issues after the fact, either.

I enjoy living in a rural area and I understand your sentiment, but disagree with your reasoning. Somebody owns the forest behind me; as much as I like it, I don't feel right restricting what people can do with their private property. That's what public forest is for; it's land that is held in trust for all the people.

Obviously, I wouldn't like it if someone built a mall next door to me, but in a philosophical framework that includes land as private property (which is how I can own the little bit of land that I have and plant trees and garden on it), I have to accept that other people have rights on the land they own.

Building up can mess your neighbor sunlight and their expectation of privacy. Not that simple.

Abolishing single family zoning won’t do anything to prevent you from buying a single family house. The vast, vast, majority of houses will still be detached single family.

It’s just allowing the option to build an in-law unit and rent it out, or split the house into a duplex, or build a townhouse (houses with shared walls).

It might just prevent you from living in it, for instance if it happens to be in between a discotheque and a pig farm.

What makes me nervous would be not knowing if my long term investment in a living space could be erased by some arbitrary use of the neighboring land. And individual homeowners would have no power against corporate owners of the land.

> > Abolishing single family zoning won’t do anything to prevent you from buying a single family house.

> It might just prevent you from living in it, for instance if it happens to be in between a discotheque and a pig farm.

Abolishing single family zoning does not imply abolishing all zoning.

Why is the government obligated to protect your investment? They aren't obligated to keep stock prices high, or to protect the companies land nearby.

> Why is the government obligated to protect your investment?

They are not. But they want people to invest, and people will not invest if they have no ability to predict the future circumstances. That's why governments try to create long-term systems and aren't running on mood swings.

Nobody will invest anywhere if all the parameters are up for redefinition every day. "Oh, you built your factory based on proximity to the high way and train line? Well guess what, those are lame, and we've decided to remove both because we want to be cool. We are not obligated to protect your investment."

They will invest, they will just price in the risk. The same as any other asset. We don't discourage this behavior in other areas, so again, why do we protect house assets? This is especially striking with homelessness being such a massive issue. Why would we protect and inflate housing investments when so many are perishing on the street?

> We don't discourage this behavior in other areas, so again, why do we protect house assets?

We don't? Pretty much anything the state is involved is specifically designed to be long-term. We absolutely don't want volatile systems, we want stability.

Making private housing investment less stable won't make public housing more stable.

Public housing was not mentioned. Making private housing more elastic will certainly reduce the amount who do not have an option that they can afford and that is legal.

I'd prefer to live in a society where the government protects the stability of some kinds of investments over reasonable time periods. A homeowner can't just pull up stakes every 5 minutes if living conditions drastically worsen. Yes I know there are people who live under those kinds of circumstances, and they're typically not very well off. There are also countries where the government has no influence on investment by virtue of being utterly powerless, and those countries aren't very well off either.

Uh... Have you not been paying attention to the Fed recently?

I assure you, it may not be written down, but the level of protection of the stock market the government engages in Dr facto establishes the government is in the business of protecting long term private investment after a particular inflection point.

Of course I'm aware of the Fed. Do you think that the current market interventions are the best way to operate? In an ideal world, wouldn't the economy be much better off if it were able to sustain events like pandemics without interventions?

The guarantee by the Fed of asset prices will lead to more inequality as asset valuations are disconnected from their returns. Do we want this to happen? Same with the government interventions in zoning, is this what we want? It doesn't cost near as much to build a house or apartment as it is to find a place that you are allowed to. Do we want to continue to allow housing costs to be disconnected from what a house actually costs to produce?

You could just buy the neighboring land and only lease it out for purposes you deem acceptable.

Such "house as many as you can squeeze in" options will quickly turn neighborhoods into slums. The idea is planning for a certain density, and then not exceeding it. That way you can better plan for traffic, electricity and water usage, etc.

What a poor argument!

HK, Singapore, NYC, Paris, and London are slums? The numbers of US tourist flocking them might say otherwise.

They contain some of the worst ones, yes. What a weak counterargument you make!

So: containing slums == slums... The density of those city is not contained in those slums.

I'm sorry you've had such a bad experience with apartments. I find that if you pay extra for a new building in a neighborhood with a higher median age, there's really not much nuisance. I live in a small studio and I never hear or smell my neighbors.

I don't think anyone is talking about banning detached SFHs here; they merely want to remove the ban on building literally anything else. SFHs are quite popular, and whatever happens, I'm sure there will still be a market for them.

So the government should manipulate the housing market to benefit a small class of people who can afford single family homes in a place, even if it is detrimental the to vast majority?

If you want to live in a SFH, perhaps a dense urban core is not ideal for you.

I'm willing to make the concession that any urban area with > 100,000 should probably not have single family zoning.

Build your McMansion out int the boonies, just don't expect me to subsidize it with my tax dollars

Seems like quite the strawman. A 1200 sq ft, or even 2000 sq ft home is not even close to a "McMansion", and a few miles from the urban core is not "the boonies."

Not op but I'm still in favor of getting rid of subsidies for suburbs - they distort the market to benefit mostly wealthy homeowners to begin with.

This guy has no idea how much those McMansions pay in taxes.

"Don't expect me to subsidize..." - said the Tax Cow

> But don't do it at the expense of people who are willing to pay high premiums to have a small piece of land to avoid the noise, smell, polution, and crowding of apartments.

I think you may misunderstand what zoning does. Ending single family zoning doesn’t end single family houses, it just allows other housing types to be built as well. Many or most housing units would still be single family houses, with or without zoning.

This would remove the incentive to over-supply, not the incentive to supply.

Many folks felt the exact same about losing the Wild West to “civilization.”

Doesn’t mean you or they were wrong, but you’re most likely going to be plowed over by the machines of progress.

By progress you mean population growth?

I think the title's a bit more provocative than the point I took from the article: that right now the premiums for that "small piece of land" ain't quite high enough due to that being specifically subsidized, and that we should remove restrictions preventing the construction of multi-family homes or residential/commercial hybrid properties.

My problem with apartments is that they ain't "mine". Not once has an apartment in which I lived allowed its tenants (myself included) to even paint the walls, let alone hang pictures with nails (gotta use those adhesive strips that absolutely suck) or mount a TV to the wall. And no way in hell would they allow me to do crazier things like putting Ethernet jacks and speaker hookups in the walls or replacing the light switches/fixtures (hell, most get uppity even if I change a burnt-out bulb) or putting in those fancy outlets with the built-in USB ports¹. Even if I were to "own" my apartment (i.e. as a condo) there's no way in hell they'd be okay with me swapping out the windows, or putting in better insulation, or installing a solar power system (and they'd probably still object to me ripping apart the walls to put in those Ethernet jacks / speaker hookups).

And then on top of all that, there are countless other things I can't do by nature of not "owning" the outdoor space, either. Shed? Nope. Barbecue? Usually not. Workshop? Not unless I'm lucky enough to have an attached garage². That DIY smelter I wanna build³? Hell fuckin' nope.

I feel like a happy medium (for me at least) between "stuck in an apartment" and "suburbia" would be townhomes or something similar: still "detached", but thinner and much closer together, with an emphasis on building vertical. Could even be on the same square footage of land, just thin and long instead of fat and square.

More critically, though, I strongly believe the distinction between "residential" and "commercial" zoning should be significantly blurred. Both in the sense of mixed-use buildings⁴ and in the sense of small business owners living where they work / working where they live (e.g. shop or restaurant on the first floor, and the owner lives on the second floor, as was once traditional).


¹: Though my previous apartment in Daly City did come with USB outlets, which was a pleasant surprise

²: Currently I am not so lucky, though the garage does have an outlet so as long as I don't draw too much down I might be able to get away with it

³: https://www.instructables.com/id/How-To-Make-The-Mini-Metal-...

⁴: I'm a strong advocate for underground parking + ground floor(s) for shops/restaurants + additional floors for apartments/condos or offices; even if apartments/condos ain't my cup of tea, I'd rather live in that sort of place than a building that's just apartments

That's orthogonal to density, isn't it? It's pretty common knowledge that very restrictive homeowner's associations are not rare for single family homes, mandating strict lawn grass standards and such.

This reminded me of an article I read about "dachas" in Russia, which are basically allotted garden plots with a small house that tons of every-day Russians have.[0]

Combined with plentiful public transit, remote work, good community layouts,etc, I think the ideal living conditions for people would be something like this. Low density housing, not made up of McMansions and chemical soaked lawns, but of space where people can connect with nature, enjoy the land side by side with neighbors and family.


The US still has vast swaths of untouched land. WFH is feasible for many jobs. And COVID-19 has shown how dangerous it is to keep people crowded together. If anything, it’s time to spread out even more.

The real problem with the world right now isn't Covid but the looming threat of climate change

Densely populated cities may not be good for disease prevention but they are much more efficient in terms of carbon cost per capita

Not a scientist so posing these as genuine questions: do crowded cities become "hot spots" in terms of heat output (everyone has the A/C on, which leads to heat building up, which leads to people blasting their A/C even higher, etc.)? And does spreading people out give heat more room to dissipate?

The term you are looking for is "urban heat island": https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Urban_heat_island

The author has plenty of good ideological arguments but doesn't really seem interested in what the effect of eliminating single-family zoning will be on day to day life for people and communities. People like living in single-family zoned neighborhoods. People don't want high-density development in their neighborhoods. People leave behind exciting city lives and move to the suburbs because they want to live somewhere peaceful, boring, low-crime. Now someone wants to transform their neighborhood and make it look like those places they decided not to live in.

As for this guy calling himself a conservative, somewhere along the way, libertarians in America began calling themselves conservatives and forgot what the term really means. Conservatism isn't knee-jerk ideological opposition to any rules.

There are countless people who live happily in areas that don't have single-family zoning. So I don't know what effects you would expect, other than an increased availability of housing. Low-rise zoning makes sense - some people just don't like having a skyscraper next door - but I don't see any reason that a 6-unit apartment building would infringe on the day to day life of people in the 2 story house next door.

I live next door to a single—family home that was ‘converted’ to a duplex in an area where vehicles are required.

There are only 2 parking spots available, and the upstairs unit was converted in such a way that the only way to get to the bathroom is through the kitchen.

The side of the house was ‘modified’ to provide a front-door to the upstairs unit. However, this door is less than 6 feet from my fence, so it is impossible for anybody to move furniture in or out of the home.

Do you live there? Is this somehow your problem? Do you know anyone who would like/needs to deal with those inconveniences in order to save money on rent?

I'm being a jerk, but even if you find something objectionable doesn't mean that it doesn't have a purpose.

Unless you're willing to buy the place, renovate in a way you see fit, and try to rent for a profit, then you should not spend so much time being concerned about this house.

Well, the tenants are evicted after several months.

The tenants, or their visitors, will park in other peoples yards.

The landlord will make deals to waive the security deposit in exchange for ‘fixing up’ the units, after the prior tenant trashes it.

So, ‘saving money’, is really externalizing the costs to the surrounding neighbors.

My plan is to purchase it, and raze it to the ground, honestly.

So, the neighbor that has a bunch of money, and sees the lot next door become ‘denser’, why not buy all the units and create a buffer?

This is a permit and building code issue, not a zoning one.

That is semantics. The zoning determines what permits and codes are applicable to the zone.

I disagree, you can still allow duplex, and require bigger spaces, better design floorpan, proper entrance. This has nothing to do about the fact that the zoning allows duplex.

I was excited to see a professedly conservative site confronting popular subsidies. That's something valuable the classical conservative viewpoint could contribute to the discussion.

Sadly, as I reached the end I knew- only one person could have written this. Marohn is, unfortunately, still bearing his torch alone.

The comments on the site are basically "don't touch my handouts" and "suburbs are the last stronghold against the brown people".

Could the zoning situation be improved with the concept of shared air-rights? Note that this is non an idea I've researched at all. Any property you own would also include partial air-rights for surrounding properties. If a new development was going to cast a shadow on to your property, they would need to buy you out of those air rights. You're never forced to sell, but many would be happy to if the price was right.

That's easy to say when your local politics isn't controlled by homeowners who have financial incentive to oppose density.

I don't know if that's true though.

Your standalone plot is surely worth more in an area that more people want to live in, and where developers could potentially buy it off you to subdivide and turn into multiple homes?

There’s a lot of problems that are still even unrelated to zoning. For example, San Jose has 25 feet setback rules for houses from the street. Can you imagine how much square footage could be added overnight if people were allowed to build closer to the sidewalks?

Serious question, how does subsidizing work in these cases. Will the government subsidize the land price in single family zones? How does it work

The subsidies mentioned are federal transportation (highway) spending. Without that (or even better with it redirected into mass transit) the prospect of commuting into the city by car becomes a lot less economical.

Federal mortgage subsidies are tied to single family housing as well.

I'm not sure what other "subsidies" you are talking about, but the mortgage interest deduction has nothing to do with the type of construction or zoning. Neither are FHA loan programs.

It isn't directly tied to zoning, but it provides the greatest benefit to people with expensive houses and high incomes.


The cities in our area are heavily subsidized by the state. The state collects the vast majority of its taxes from the suburbs.

In return, the cities here have non-functioning schools, despite being well funded. The cities have very high crime, and basic services in the cities are lacking.

There is a perpetual cycle of 20 somethings moving into the cities as they start their careers, and then moving to the burbs within 5-10 years as they realize that their kids will be uneducated if they remain there, and they will get mugged every couple of years.

> When it comes to housing policy, we conservatives run the risk of becoming a caricature of ourselves, long on reactionary impulse but short on principle.

There are two principles dear to conservatives that form an antagonistic relationship in this case: 1. minimal government intervention, and 2. emergent common law/standards. When left alone, homeowner associations (HOAs) tend to form single-family zoning policies. I'm not sure how to square this circle.

HOA law is a mess and needs repeal/reform from the state governments

HOAs survive because they are able to socialize long-term costs of maintaining them.

If an HOA mandates single-family dwellings and large set-backs, then it should be directly responsible for road maintenance, sanitation, fire, etc. If you want all those long roads, you have to pay for them.

The way it works now is that a developer drops in an HOA with a restrictive covenant, then turns the mess over to the nearest city to maintain a bunch of excessive infrastructure.

If an HOA can't be maintained (bankruptcy) then the covenant should be automatically dissolved and the easements lifted.

Yes. In colorado they actually have a mechanism where the city and developer can conspire to create a special tax district for each development area.

What manifests in the linked writing is a near-perfect articulation of the head-scratching argumentation made by old-school fiscal conservatives when confronting the actions of now-dominant social conservatives.

Calls to demonstrate conservative principles of small government, to spurn the transfer of funds from blue states to red states, and to reject racist policies are appeals to fiscal conservatism and proponents of small government. Unfortunately for the author, that's a plainly antiquated cause in American conservative politics.

The wedge issues, antagonistic framing, and outright racism leveraged to build a coopted support base have broken out of the petri dish and taken over the host, leaving old school fiscal conservatives and small-government idealists thoughtfully trying to state their points as they get shoved into a school locker or quietly shaking their heads as they wonder how to make the trade off worth it.

In a way, it represents a now set-aside third political body, one that liberals would do well to include, learn from, and leverage. There are people who wish to ask interesting questions, theorize, advocate, and meaningfully govern (even if it's in a very different way).

I think the third party you're alluding to is the demographic that actually cares about improving things for most people, regardless of the political philosophy that the idea comes from.

I've always thought there should be more like us than the other type of people who are purely idealogical, but that's exactly what everyone else thinks.

At least I can console myself knowing I don't support such hilariously incongruent ideas as the social conservatives you mention. But I'm not sure how what I believe are good policies for most actually win out

Bet you won't have to dig far to find that the author of the article is an apartment developer or very adjacent to one.

He's the founder of Strong Towns: https://www.strongtowns.org/about a non profit advocacy for financial stability in communities. His background is civil engineering.

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