Arbitrary Lines: How Zoning Broke the American City and How to Fix It — M. Nolan Gray

Arbitrary Lines is a very good book, and one whose subject shouldn’t discourage you; as the author admits: “At surface level, zoning is an impossibly boring topic, even by the terms of public policy debate.” The boredom is part of the point, though: because it’s boring, most people don’t get fired up about change. The tedium is protective to the status quo, and the tedium means that “seemingly innocuous zoning rules” have come to control “virtually every facet of American life.” As a result, we’re “systematically moving from high productivity cities to low-productivity cities, in no small part because these are the only places where zoning allows housing to be built.” I’m a tiny part of this massive migration: I moved from New York City to Arizona because New York builds less new housing per capita than almost any other major city, outside of California. The per-square-foot cost of my place in Arizona, in an area that is what passes for urban, is under half that of New York. I’d have liked to stay in New York but not at the literal cost of staying there.


Gray points to the ’70s as a turning point—something I wondered about too: “As a result of the further tightening of zoning restrictions beginning in the 1970s, median housing prices have dramatically outpaced median incomes in many parts of the country over the past half century.” Solutions like “move to the farthest exurbs” don’t work well because they increase car commuting and traffic congestion, with commuting being awful for quality-of-life. In many cities, there is effectively no more exurban fringe: New York and L.A. are out of space within practice reach of their centers. Nominal “environmentalists” who attempt to seal their neighborhoods from new housing units are particularly comedic: they say they’re worried about the environment, while supporting housing policies that are terrible for the environment and foment car commuting. All of us are hypocritical to some extent, but this is well beyond normal, everyday hypocrisy.

Gray goes through zoning’s history: starting in the 1910s and moving onwards. He notes that “Cities such as Providence, Cleveland, and Los Angles grew by a startling 50 percent or more between 1890 and 1920. This in turn triggered a boom in apartment construction, as demand for housing ballooned.” “Ballooned” is a funny word here, given that one can imagine the housing stock as cartoon balloons being inflated. But it’s also useful to conceive of what a dynamic society looks like: a dynamic allows the freedom for landowners to build new housing, without a huge number of veto players stopping them. Outside of the relatively unregulated tech industry—which is where the frontier has moved—we’re a complacent society, not a dynamic one, and housing is one of the places this is clearest (though drug development and the stranglehold imposed by the FDA is another).

In much discourse today, the “not-in-my-backyard” (NIMBY) contingent argues that things are changing “too fast,” whatever that may mean. NIMBYs who claim to be redressing historical racial grievances seem to miss that they’re willing to rapidly adopt new moral or social ideas, while being unwilling to countenance changes in the physical environment that really matter and might embody those moral or social ideas. They’re saying one thing, but not connecting those statements to each other. Much early zoning was about exclusion—Berkeley, California “introduced the first single-family zoning district in the United States,” and Gray reports that “Charles Henry Cheney, a key framer of Berkeley’s 1916 zoning ordinance” worried that “undesirable industries” would bring in “negroes and Orientals.” Today, Berkeley’s rhetoric favors racial harmony and integration, while Berkeley’s median housing price is $1.7 million. Almost no one seems to see the gap between the stated goals. The rationale for modern zoning is different from the original rationale, but the outcome is similar.

Gray worked, and maybe works, in urban planning, so he has stories about its absurdities. There’s a 30,000 foot view of how things work, and there’s an on-the-ground-view, and he’s done both. I appreciate the combination: having worked for decades in grant writing, I see things about the world of nonprofits and public agencies that most people don’t. Like zoning, few are interested in how many nonprofits and public agencies are funded and truly operate. The knowledge is out there, mostly ignored, except by the wonks who can find one another online.

The middle sections of Arbitrary Lines, about how restricting housing supply raises prices, will be familiar to regular readers, or to anyone familiar with basic economics (which excludes a large number of people who think other factors are somehow at play—though we see the supply-restriction story in the data). I’m tempted to quote extensively, but this is a solid “man does not bite dog” story: what one would expect to happen, has happened, helping to lower aggregate wealth and make life harder for millions of people. Gray also has a picture of yard signs, one saying “All are welcome” and another “opposing zoning liberalization in Austin.” There are fun study citations, like that “the typical resident of Vermont—renowned for its commitment to environmentalist causes—consumes three and a half times as much gasoline per year as the typical resident of New York City.” Most people follow their feelings, not data, and so we get the results we get. Still, the affordability crisis has gotten bad enough that we’re starting to see policy responses, and books like Arbitrary Lines should help inform the kinds of staffers who write and encourage legislation.

What can be done? I approve of efforts to enforce change at the state level and hope they succeed, though I wonder if it’s going to take technological innovation to see substantial improvements. Self-driving cars will lower the cost of current zoning, because true self-driving cars would allow us to reallocate most of the vast amount of urban, developed space reserved for parking into something else. The car allowed the exclusionary suburbs of the post-war era to bloom, and the self-driving car may remove the mania for mandating the over-provision of parking spaces. The High Cost of Free Parking is a great, surprising book about a subject that seems as boring as zoning, and yet one that also affects almost every aspect of how we live—including our health.

If this essay seems like too much a summary of the book, that’s because the book is thorough and comprehensive, and apart from some anecdotes I have too little to add. “Zoning” may be invisible, but its results are visible all around us. We pay supernormal amounts to live in areas built before zoning strangled our ability to create functional cities. Human flourishing would increase if Gray’s ideas became widely adopted. Inertia and complacency stand in the way. We can live better, if we choose to.

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