Why did cities freeze in the 1970s?

Home is where the cartel is” says that “divisive hot-button issues like inequality and immigration ultimately derive from housing dysfunction.” Yet Waldman points out that the prescription many commentators, including this one, want—housing market rationalization—is unlikely to be attractive to the mass of existing owners/voters. The piece is not easily excerpted and should really be read in full before you continue, but here is one important point:

The libertarian “deregulatory” rhetoric by which market urbanists sometimes make their case is counterproductive. Telling people to think of their homes as a commodity upon which market forces should be brought to bear in order to ensure production of housing services at competitive prices is obtuse. People purchase property, rather than renting, largely to gain security and control, to escape the vicissitudes of the market.

If Waldman is right, I’ve been framing the issue incorrectly—if I actually want to persuade most people. I’ve been mulling the Waldman article since I read it a couple days ago and finally realized what bothered me: Extreme zoning seems to have really gotten started in the ’70s or early ’80s. NYC is still so dense because people from the seventeenth century up until the ’70s had a fairly easy time replacing existing buildings more or less when they felt like doing so. If markets demanded higher buildings, land owners tended to build higher buildings.

(This is a periodic reminder that the term “market” is just a shorthand word for something like, “mediating what a bunch of disparate people want, and how their varying bids for goods and services get aggregated.” It’s kind of distressing to need to include this disclaimer / definition, but hey, that’s the modern Internet world.)

An observer can literally see physical evidence of the housing freeze in places like Seattle. Both Capitol Hill and the U-District had, for decades, one twenty-something-story building each, which were almost landmarks. They were built just before Seattle comprehensively banned most high-rises—a ban that lasted until the 2000s. Had the market been allowed to function normally, single family neighborhoods would’ve gradually transitioned into duplexes, townhouses, or small apartment buildings, and areas with small buildings would’ve gradually seen midrises and high rises grow.

But, instead of that, Seattle basically froze the market. So did L.A. and many other locales. In 1970, L.A. was zoned for ten million people. In 2010, when our technology was vastly inferior to the 1970s, L.A.’s zoning was down to 4.3 million. That is odd and helps explain why L.A. used to be the  land of opportunity and is now the land of exclusion. Parking requirements, which can increase housing costs in L.A. by as much as a third, also explain why the city is now so expensive. We build more dwellings for our cars than our humans.

[Note to people who keep emailing me: saying technology today is inferior to the ’70s is a joke.]

What changed in urban planning and/or city politics in the ’70s? That to me is a key question and one I can’t really answer. The diffusion of Jane Jacobs’s ideas is one possible answer, but her answer still found fertile political and legal soil. Perhaps the backlash from the Robert Moses of the world was a part of the problem. “S” wonders if it was white flight.

Up until the Petaluma City Plan, growth was (relatively) unconstrained, especially in cities. After Petaluma, it wasn’t. In many parts of what we now think of as high-cost cities, the city feels frozen in time since… the ’70s.

Cities have always had rich neighborhoods and poor neighborhoods, but freezing cities seems to have occurred relatively recently. So has the most vociferous talk of “gentrification.”

I primarily bring this up because if parochial land-use policies were only adopted in the last couple decades, they may be more reversible and less a part of human or political nature than is sometimes assumed. I don’t think human nature or human DNA has changed substantially since the ’70s.  But Waldman’s point about the politics of contemporary land-use controls remains and I don’t know how to overcome the dynamics he points out. Not all problems have solutions.

But we are all paying zoning’s steep price, to use the title of the paper at the link. It’s a PDF.

Jeff Fong has one excellent response and you should read it.

EDIT: Via Twitter, Dan Keshet suggests I read William Fischel’s Zoning Rules, which may answer the questions above. See also “When the Market Built Housing for the Low Income.”  That era was not long ago!

Fischel says that in the 1970s:

the growth-control movement was born and spread almost as rapidly as zoning originally did [in the 1910s and 1920s], though its effects were regionally selective. I argue that a combination of modern forces induced this change, but the most important was the 1970s period of inflation, which helped transform housing from a consumer good to an investment and thus gave rise to a political class I have called “homevoters.” (163)

Homevoters ensure that “zoning can go too far and prevent economically desirable increases in density and hinder what many people regard as the desirable mixing of socioeconomic groups within communities” (164).

If you see anyone arguing about what happened in the 1970s without even engaging in Fischel’s ideas, you know they a) aren’t thinking in terms of comparative history, b) don’t understand the history of the period, and c) likely don’t know what they’re talking about.

Guest post: “Brooklyn” is movie of the year, or maybe the decade

This post is by Isaac Seliger; there are some minor spoilers.

Movie buffs know that the end of the year brings Hollywood’s “adult” (not that kind of adult) movie openings. This year Brooklyn fits that slot, and it’s easily the movie of the year if not decade. There’s not a single wasted shot.

Brooklyn is the story of Eilis Lacey, a young Irish woman who ends up in Brooklyn in 1952: This is not the hipster Brooklyn of today or the “dems” and “dosse” ethnic Brooklyn caricatures Hollywood usually presents. Instead, this Brooklyn is a mashup of hard working immigrant and first-generation Irish and Italians living side by side yet apart from one another. They strive for the American dream but are lashed to the fading memory of a romanticized old country. As the child of German Jewish refugees from the Nazis (Jake never knew his grandparents) who grew up in the 1950s in a not-too-dissimilar neighborhood in Minneapolis, I know these people.

The story swings back and forth from Brooklyn to a seemingly charming Irish village. Or is it charming? People don’t leave charming, happy places. While Eilis longs for the imagined brighter future of America at the start of the film, homesickness fills the middle third. With the film’s resolution, we learn why Eilis can’t go home again and must, as all immigrants/refugees, find a way to build a new home. America’s immigrant nature means that almost every family has an Eilis in their lineage.

Then there is the choice to name the heroine “Eilis,” an unusual Irish girl’s name and the Gaelic form of Elizabeth. Eilis evokes the timeless image of waves of immigrants arriving at Ellis Island. Brooklyn includes two scenes set in an Ellis-Island-like immigration arrival hall.

Brooklyn is the best movie about the American immigrant experience since Hester Street that I can recall. Hester Street tells a similar story: A young Russian Jewish woman named Gitl follows her husband to the Lower East Side in 1896. Like Eilis, Gitl struggles with the new land, but Hester Street is darker. The Lower East at the turn of 20th Century presented a much more uncertain future for immigrants than Brooklyn in 1952. The U.S. was much smaller and poorer. The fruits of industrialization and mechanization were less certain. And by the 1950s, the overt and virulent anti-immigrant feelings of the 19th Century had largely faded. The early 1950s America was a time of post-World-War-II optimism and economic growth. Brooklyn’s Irish and Italian immigrants are confident of a bright future.

Unlike many modern bloated films, Brooklyn is only 111 minutes long. Casablanca, my vote for best movie of all time, is only 102 minutes. In contrast, The Revenant clocks in at 156 minutes and The Hateful Eight at a butt-numbing 168 minutes. As grant writers, Jake and I can attest that writing shorter is often much harder than writing longer; I assume the same is true of movie making.

Individual stories humanize mass groups. Today’s news often presents Syrian refugees as a faceless horde with potentially ominous motives. In Brooklyn, Eilis places a human face on the overarching immigration theme. She chooses to come to America, rather than being forced, and choice matters. My parents and most of the Syrian refugees today are really just leaves being blown by The Winds of War. America is a big enough country to shelter many, and Brooklyn implicitly shows why and how.

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