Yesterday, I wrote about the bipartisan support for land-use regulation and zoning reform coming from Washington, D.C. in the form of Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson’s proposals to induce local governments to relax regulations as a condition for federal aid.
Anti-development NIMBYism is traditionally recognized as problem for the left. Not only do the cities with the highest “regulatory taxes” tend to be more politically liberal, but skepticism of (or outright hostility to) markets as a solution to the housing affordability crisis is a political position traditionally associated with the left.
A more nuanced view of the affordability crisis offered by Emily Badger in The New York Times argues that blocking development is a bipartisan issue.
Liberals and conservatives clearly prefer to live in different kinds of communities. Liberals say they prefer more urban, walkable neighborhoods, and conservatives less dense communities with larger homes. But studies show that homeowners of both parties support restricting development around them. And they do so in spite of their own ideologies — whether conservative voters might otherwise value free markets, or whether liberals value policies that aid the poor.
Interviewing Jessica Trounstine, author of a recent study on the racial motivations for exclusionary zoning, Badger finds the desire to keep neighborhoods segregated is a major driver of restrictive zoning policies. “Local control in the history of land use is synonymous with the generation of exclusivity, or the funneling of people into bad neighborhoods, or building refuse and recycling plants right in the heart of the black neighborhood,” said Trounstine. When the venue for policymaking is at the local level, it’s easy for residents to leverage their political power to keep their communities closed.
But beyond common bigotry, Badger lays most of the blame for exclusionary zoning on simple economic self-interest on the part of homeowners.
Beyond race, the crucial divide in the politics of housing development isn’t between left and right, but between people who own homes and those who don’t…Generations of American politicians have argued that homeowners make good citizens — and in the early days of the nation, only property owners could vote. It seems reasonable that a financial stake in the community would make people more likely to care for it. But this research suggests that homeownership can also prompt people to oppose what’s good for their communities in a larger sense — at least if you believe, as [Secretary] Carson does, that many communities need more housing.
Land-use and zoning deregulation shouldn’t be a partisan issue: it’s a way to achieve progressive/liberal ends with conservative/libertarian means. And, in addition to Carson and Booker, both the Obama Administration and George H.W. Bush’s HUD Secretary Jack Kemp were anti-NIMBYs.
Using land-use and zoning reform as a way to “own the libs” or “cons,” in addition to injecting unnecessary tribalism into an important debate, misses the point. Rent-seeking is a question of economic self-interest, and folks on the left and right all have skin in the game.