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.

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