The effect of zoning restrictions on the life of the artist

Zena Hitz’s book Lost in Thought: The Hidden Pleasures of an Intellectual Life delivers what it promises: a description of the beauty, importance, and pleasure of learning and doing for their own sake: “If human beings flourish from their inner core rather than in the realm of impact and results, then the inner work of learning is fundamental to human happiness, as far from pointless wheel spinning as are the forms of tenderness we owe our children or grandchildren.” David Perrell just interviewed Hitz, and she observes what many of us have felt: that the zoning laws that impede housing development cost us spiritually, not just in terms of dollars:

I spent a semester a couple of years ago in South Bend Indiana. That’s where I actually wrote the book. And I was astonished at what a difference it made to be in a place where the real estate was relatively cheap, for how people lived.

So for instance, I think there was this couple, they ran a nonprofit jazz club and got pianos out of the landfill and redid them and gave them to schools. Now, again, that’s not the kind of life you can lead… And they lived off of donations, as far as I knew, maybe they had some income from one place or another.

You can’t live that life on the Coasts. You’re always scrambling for your rent or your mortgage or whatever it is. The cost of housing is so high that it crushes people’s imaginations, people’s ways of thinking about their lives. And ironically, in places… I mean, in California, it breaks my heart because I’ve been out here for a little while, visiting family, and it’s so beautiful. There’s so much contemplation to be done in California.

The idea of living out here and wasting all your time making money so you can pay your mortgage is horrifying. You’re in one of the most beautiful places in the world, take a walk and think about things. So I think that’s really true. I think we don’t think enough about how really concrete this all is. If your real estate is too expensive, you’re not going to live as good a life. And I think that should change the way that we live, but how that’s going to work out in the long-term, I’m not really sure.

That’s a long blockquote, but it’s germane to the larger point. Having spent time in L.A. and New York, the difference between those places and lower-cost places is palpable: virtually everyone, except perhaps the few with inherited wealth, feels, correctly, they need to hustle to make it. And we’ve deliberately voted for societies in which that’s the default, by making the cost of housing so high through supply restrictions—and it is supply restrictions driving costs: see the research cited in this piece, for example, for more on that subject. But the debates about easing zoning rarely talk about the real improvements to human life that such policies can bring.

Hitz also says:

So the United States, for instance, very wealthy in the 1960s you look at what people’s lives were like in say, my parents’ generation, that’s the baby boomers basically. And it didn’t cost anything to live in LA, you could have a part-time job in a coffee shop and live in LA or San Francisco, and have plenty of time to read and do what you wanted. And that’s just not a reality anymore the economic situation has changed dramatically.

I’d love to have more time to read and do what I want. And I have some: I don’t want to pretend I don’t. But housing costs have dominated a lot of my existence. In the 1950s, when building new housing was largely legal, rents for a one-bedroom apartment in Manhattan were about $530 a month. Since COVID struck, rates have fallen, but they still appear to be about $3,000 per month, or about 5.5x what they were in the ’50s. The life of the mind is hard to live on the coasts, although many programmers also have brilliant minds whose tendencies are well-rewarded.

Hitz’s book touches the same themes as her Perrell interview:

San Francisco in the 1970s was a strange place for many famous reasons, but its basic commitment to leisure is clear to me only now that we have passed into a far less leisurely age. Reading and thinking for their own sake went along with outings to the stony beaches and dark mountain forests of Northern California, without a clear object or specialized skills or expensive equipment. (2)

I’ve been part of this change: I’d prefer to spend fewer hours working as a grant writing consultant and more hours writing novels: but one of those activities pays far better than the other, so it gets the majority of my time. I’m symptomatic of my generation: rents and student loans have squeezed my life in a particular direction.

We’ve legislated ourselves into working relentlessly to support the assets of landowners. This is insane, stated this way, and yet it’s how the political system has evolved. Parking minimums lead everyone to need expensive cars, because buildings are so spread out that biking becomes impractical (places like Phoenix, or L.A.’s Inland Empire, are the apotheosis of such policies). Maybe we should reconsider both, and consider what life could be like if we’d prioritize lowering costs, rather than forever working to inflate asset prices and have to buy and maintain cars.

One slight caveat to Hitz’s generalizations: I do think a lot of people, including tech people and the philosophers who do tech, read and think for their own sake. “For their own sake” or “for their own sake” also conceal much: true uselessness seems rare. It’s difficult to predict what will be “useful.” My favorite example of this is Tolkien: inventing imaginary languages and mythologies didn’t seem terribly “useful” relative to his work as a philologist and professor. But those useless activities turned out to be essential to writing one of the great imaginative works of all time. “Useful” is hard to predict.

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