Limited Equity: Stable Communities, Affordable Housing

The Amalgamated Dwellings in New York City. Photo: Theo Mackey Pollack.

I have a new article published at TAC’s New Urbs blog, about the history and legal structure of New York City’s limited-equity housing cooperatives, which continue to provide surprisingly affordable, high-quality housing units in one of the most expensive real estate markets in the United States. The piece tells the story about how limited-equity co-ops got started; their philosophical roots; their early successes; why the model declined in popularity; and how an approach that recovers its best qualities might be be compatible with various subsets of the polarized political landscape of contemporary America.

I think there’s little question that the shortage of affordable housing in the regions with the best economies is a major driving force in the structural inequality that characterizes our current moment; and that the biggest beneficiaries of this status quo are rent seekers, rather than actors who contribute anything dynamic or innovative to the economy. Taking the role of speculation out of the equation can do a lot to keep prices in line with what residents can actually afford. For the reasons described in my article, I think this is an important idea that deserves to be recovered and applied in today’s metropolitan real estate economies.

California’s Radical Experiment: Granny Flats

Most would not be as fancy as Alexandre Dumas’.

Driving home from the train station on a recent night, I heard this piece on NPR’s Marketplace: a story about a recent California statute that makes it significantly easier for homeowners in that state to develop additional units on their property. Here’s a link to a memo from the Department of Housing and Community Development, describing the changes. Among other things, the new statute overrides certain off-street parking requirements, which can preclude new units that would otherwise be permitted under zoning rules. These requirements are particularly onerous in large cities where public transportation is a viable option — and this law takes aim, specifically, at requirements within walking distance of transit. Of course, this development is just a small step toward achieving a land marketplace that is actually allowed to be responsive to market demands, rather than legal ones; but I think it is a very important one.

As early as the mid-1970s, the primary cases in New Jersey’s Mount Laurel doctrine began to lay out all of the major land use regulatory devices that have stifled the development of resourceful housing options since the early 20th century. Getting rid of unnecessary off-street parking requirements, and taking a publicly favorable stand toward in increase in the number of units in heavily-regulated suburban neighborhoods, are both major steps toward dismantling the regulatory morass that has been strangling housing development as the amount of raw, zoned land has dwindled throughout our major metropolitan areas. This is an important step in the right direction. Would be interested in hearing from people who would like to see a similar bill in New Jersey.

One of the most important takeaways from the NPR story was its hard evidence of pent-up demand for smaller, less-expensive housing units in pricey California. Local builders and contractors who specialize in the construction of small homes cannot keep up with demand. Their schedules are full for months into the future.

Spotlight: 2013 Mount Laurel Exhibit at Rutgers

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Click on the above photo to see the full album.

Here are some pictures I took of a special exhibit at the Rutgers Law Library in 2013, focused on the Mount Laurel doctrine, its history, and its legacy. I just discovered them while I was going through old photos, and thought they might be of interest to some readers. Incidentally, I was in John Payne’s Con Law class during his last semester of teaching at Rutgers. His untimely death was jarring for those of us who were in his class. Interesting fact: he and his wife lived in a Frank Lloyd Wright house, in Glen Ridge.

On the Outskirts of Town

Casey Bill Weldon, 1936.

We gonna leave here, mama. I don’t want you staying here.
I don’t need no iceman, I’m gonna get me a Frigidaire
That’s what I’m gonna do when we get on the outskirts of town.

The promise of the modern American suburb was a measure of independence. Given how annoying the constant interaction of urban life can be, the suburbs seemed to offer a wholesome alternative. And when the suburbs were being built as physical towns, they offered urbanism on a more human scale than big, industrial cities. But what happened when the suburbs, because of evolving land use policies, essentially became the permanent outskirts of town? When the development of urban nodes — with their opportunities for social and commercial interactions — was banned within walking distance of people’s new homes?

In some cases, suburban developments offered a space to create artificial fiefdoms; a separation of households from entire categories of interactions. Many blue-collar American men faced the first green shoots of female economic and political parity in the period preceding the suburban boom. (American women in the 1940s had proven their economic power by essentially running the domestic industrial system while the men who were their peers were in Europe and the Pacific, fighting World War II.) A certain type of American man would likely have recognized that his tenuous status was in flux. Having the iceman hanging around was not a pleasant thought!

It is well documented that mid-20th century suburban development patterns helped prolong the racial disparities that characterized American life. My question is, to what extent did the post-war land-use policies also slow the progress of feminism? And to what extent did the men who participated in these developments recognize and value that aspect of the physical forms of these communities? Having listened to American women who lived through the mid-20th century, it is hard not to recognize how stifling of an arrangement that iteration of suburbia could be.

Land Use Imitates Art

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Here’s a three-dimensional, color map of Los Angeles, in 1909. It’s interesting. You can see the urban core that was beginning to take shape: the concentration of zero-lot line buildings, the canyons of concrete, the traditional green squares, the grid of warehouse blocks near the railroad tracks. Had it not been for the interruption by history — motor vehicles, modern zoning — a more traditional big city might have evolved there.

Here are a couple of surviving examples that I found of urban fabric in the core of Los Angeles, from which you could kind of envision an alternate pattern of how Southern California might have developed:

Broadway / 7th Street, Los Angeles.

Spring / West 4th Streets.

Just north of the urban core is Bunker Hill. You can see it in the bird’s-eye view, above, where the land rises behind the dense grid of streets, and the structures transition from commercial to residential. Most of what was once there is gone today. Here’s an old photograph, looking across Pershing Square:

Downtown-LA-1900

Raymond Chandler described the late stages of the neighborhood’s decline in his 1942 novel, The High Window, as only he could do:

Bunker Hill is old town, lost town, shabby town, crook town. Once, very long ago, it was the choice residential district of the city, and there are still standing a few of the jigsaw Gothic mansions with wide porches and walls covered with round-end shingles and full corner bay windows with spindle turrets. They are all rooming houses now, their parquetry floors are scratched and worn through the once glossy finish and the wide sweeping staircases are dark with time and with cheap varnish laid on over generations of dirt. In the tall rooms haggard landladies bicker with shifty tenants. On the wide cool front porches, reaching their cracked shoes into the sun, and staring at nothing, sit the old men with faces like lost battles.

In and around the old houses there are flyblown restaurants and Italian fruit stands and cheap apartment houses and little candy stores where you can buy even nastier things than their candy. And there are ratty hotels where nobody except people named Smith and Jones sign the register and where the night clerk is half watchdog and half pander.

Out of the apartment houses come women who should be young but have faces like stale beer; men with pulled-down hats and quick eyes that look the street over behind the cupped hand that shields the match flame; worn intellectuals with cigarette coughs and no money in the bank; fly cops with granite faces and unwavering eyes; cokies and coke peddlers; people who look like nothing in particular and know it, and once in a while even men that actually go to work. But they come out early, when the wide cracked sidewalks are empty and still have dew on them.

The urban fabric of Bunker Hill was almost completely demolished in the 1960s under a massive redevelopment plan. For a sense of what was lost: George Mann, a Los Angeles photographer, took this picture in 1959:

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Grand Avenue / 2nd Street. Photo by George Mann, courtesy of Dianne Woods and the George Mann Archives. (Fair use.)

Paul Krugman Hits the Nail on the Head

NYC Zoning mapIn a Times piece called “Inequality and the City” about the competitive real estate markets in America’s affluent cities, Paul Krugman identifies the role that restrictive land use regulations continue to play in the chronic shortage of affordable housing:

But what about all the people, surely a large majority, who are being priced out of America’s urban revival? Does it have to be that way?

The answer, surely, is no, at least not to the extent we’re seeing now. Rising demand for urban living by the elite could be met largely by increasing supply. There’s still room to build, even in New York, especially upward. Yet while there is something of a building boom in the city, it’s far smaller than the soaring prices warrant, mainly because land use restrictions are in the way.

Exactly. Thank you. In the last five years, we seem to have gone from a time when no one was even cognizant of the role that zoning laws played in the chronic shortage of urban affordable housing, to the beginnings of a left-right consensus about the inequitable and anti-competitive impacts of those laws — and the ways in which they are distorting the market. This is really a cause for celebration, and I think we should take a moment to recognize how far the conversation has come.

But we almost certainly have not come to the end of the line. This issue has been so far beneath the radar that even those who have benefited from distortions of the real estate market by restrictive zoning laws have made little political effort to defend the status quo. They have just assumed that it would go on forever. Now, as those with vested interests in the artificial limits to development — primarily, urban land owners — begin to realize that their gravy train could be in peril, the attacks on reform proposals will begin in earnest. Here’s a great example of what’s likely to be on the way, peddling the usual pseudo-leftist bullshit that appeals to the urban bourgeoisie:

We, the undersigned residents of New York City, call for an end to the violence that real estate developers have inflicted on our skyline, parks, public areas, and cityscape with the proliferation of dramatically over-scaled buildings that ignore the historic context of our city.

Translation: we paid a lot for the exclusive right to live in our neighborhood. We have just realized how precarious our investment could become if the regulations were changed, and people actually had housing choices in the same (or comparable) locations.

Keep an eye out for more of this nonsense in the near future. Of course there’s a role for design and aesthetics in development policy, and massing considerations may sometimes be a part of that role. But for now, I’m sticking with those who recognize the need to permit much more residential construction in places like New York City. Let’s keep the conversation going.

A Right to Counsel for Tenants

Mark Levine, a New York City Council member, has a bill in the hopper that would retain an attorney, at public expense, for low-income tenants facing eviction. In a Times op-ed authored by Levine and Mary Brosnahan of the Coalition for the Homeless, they cite some stark statistics:

▪ Only ten percent of tenants facing eviction in New York City have lawyers, while nearly 100 percent of evicting landlords are represented by counsel.

▪ Tenants represented by counsel are 80 percent less likely to be evicted than those acting pro se.

▪ Nearly 29,000 New York City households were evicted last year.

▪ Providing an attorney for a tenant would cost taxpayers about $2,500, but sheltering a homeless family in New York City costs, on average, more than $45,000.

The State of the City: De Blasio Focuses on Housing


Mayor Bill De Blasio used his 2015 State of the City address, delivered at Baruch College, to focus on the high stakes of New York City’s affordable housing crisis, and how his administration intends to address housing as a policy matter. I found it particularly hopeful that De Blasio identified the important roles of land use regulations and additional, market-rate units in solving the chronic shortage of affordable units in the city.

The Affordable Housing Plan

HousingNYThumbHere’s Mayor Bill de Blasio’s affordable housing plan. It’s interesting, and in in some ways ambitious, but let’s keep in mind that 80,000 new units is a very modest goal for a city of more than eight million people. Ultimately, the only phenomena that will make a difference in New York City’s housing equilibrium will be, either, the liberalization of development policies to allow for construction that meets demand; or a collapse in the desirability of the city.

I also have strong philosophical objections to the paternalistic caste system of bureaucratized affordable housing, within which a certain number of below-market units are bestowed on the metropolitan economy’s deserving worker bees — with all of the bureaucracy and micromanagement that the bestowers desire. If local government would simply get out of the way (within reason), and allow developers to build to the market’s demand, then I suspect that a much broader base of people with low to moderate incomes would be able to obtain and negotiate housing arrangements, on their own terms. Ultimately, the tranches are less important than the total: if de Blasio’s land use policies result in a significant expansion in the number of city housing units, it should help. If not, then 80,000 new “affordable” units will be a drop in the bucket.

Liberalization of land use policy is where the real promise of a more equitable city lies. And to bring about the required sea change, first, the policymakers have to get past the NIMBYs.

Zoned Out: Update

11th-and-V-zoning-map

Are these killing the next generation’s chance to obtain an economic foothold?

Here are two new articles dealing with the relationship between excessive land use regulation and the lack of affordable housing in desirable metropolitan regions: the first, from Reihan Salam, is something of a polemic (in places), but his analysis strikes me as mostly substantively accurate, and he has embedded links to a bunch of other authors (across the philosophical spectrum) who are making similar points. The other is from Next City, and it deals, again, specifically with the housing costs in the San Francisco Bay area, and ties these costs to the low numbers of housing permits that are issued across the region, in spite of stratospheric demand. The attention coming out of the SF region about housing costs seems greater to me than that which is originating in the New York City region, the other very expensive American metropolis. I suspect that this disparity is due to the resigned cynicism of most New Yorkers about the cost of everything.

In Defense of Illegal Apartments

The Times has a piece by Mireya Navarro about the Sarkars, a couple in Queens who created an affordable new housing unit in the basement of their home; and how the City of New York responded by forcing them to evict their tenant, dismantle their improvements, and pay penalties in excess of $1,200. In a metropolitan region where the imbalance between wages and housing costs is as extreme and inequitable as it is in New York City, surely local government could find better ways to direct its energy. The article highlights the increasingly mainstream political support for such a case:

Largely written to prevent slum conditions and firetraps, New York’s housing regulations have not kept up with changing cultural norms and increasing financial pressures, some housing experts said. It is, for example, illegal for more than three unrelated adults to live together in New York City. That law is widely broken and infrequently enforced.

For many students and new immigrants, sharing space has long been the most affordable housing option in the city. New economic challenges, the experts said, have spurred even more demand for such arrangements.

Look: Illegal units and other informal living arrangements are part of the natural process of urbanism; they are how towns and cities absorb incremental growth as the population level begins to exceed the existing number of units, and as rents and property values rise accordingly; but before the market pressures become significant enough to support new, denser construction projects. In New York City, neighborhoods of Queen Anne houses in what would become the West Bronx were gradually replaced by large, courtyard-centered apartment buildings that occupied similar footprints but housed far more people. Nevertheless, it would be reasonable to presume that, before the apartments, many of the ostensibly single-family mansions were renting out rooms.

106MountHopePlaceNYC

106 Mount Hope Place in the West Bronx, New York City. Source: Google.

Universal Euclidean zoning since World War II, and the stringent building codes that have gone with it, have thwarted the natural process of urban growth, driving it underground. This has caused urban housing supplies to be constrained not only until the market pressure is sufficient to support new development, but until the market pressure is sufficient to create the political pressure that is needed to revise local land use codes. This is particularly challenging because the most established residents in any community — those who own property — will benefit, up to a point, from a shortage, through higher rents and property values. Accordingly, universal zoning has created a much higher bar for initiating the kind of densification process that would actually accommodate demand, and, I believe, it largely explains why housing costs in major US and European metropolitan areas have become astronomical since the 1970s. In addition to the natural price rises resulting from shortages, the chronic constraint of land markets has also turned very small slices of prime urban real estate into exchangeable commodities, adding even more capital to the competition for urban land. This is not all bad, of course, but it is inherently unstable because too much value rests on a stubborn but artificial shortage; and at the same time, it is crushing the supply of affordable housing in several key regions.

The 1970s were a key turning point: In the wake of the post-war suburban exodus, zoning had no tangible effect on urban housing costs, because there was a glut of urban housing units, and the suburbs were being built on cheap rural land. But then, college-educated Baby Boomers began to recolonize urban neighborhoods; the 1968 US immigration law brought the first new global immigrants to American shores; and at approximately the same time, the commutable portions of the heavily-zoned suburbs began to get built out. This is why Mount Laurel was an issue in the 1970s: In a key state, the availability of affordable housing was becoming a problem, and that situation was eroding the balance of economic opportunity that had characterized much of the post-war period for middle-class Americans. The beginning phase of a situation that was viewed as untenable by the New Jersey Court in 1974 has now become the norm in many metropolitan regions. Beginning to accept the growth of neighborhoods that is driven by market demands, and to provide legal normalization for such phenomena, is an important first step toward deflating the artificial housing shortages that are driving inequality and distorting the dynamics of American places whose regional economic strength ought to be the basis for broad-based opportunity, rather than exclusion.

Warrior Cops … and Democracy?

The Wall Street Journal has a disturbing piece by Radley Balko about the rise of military tactics in domestic US policing. While one can clearly see the need for certain police officers to be trained in these approaches to handle the occasional life-threatening crisis — say, an unfolding attack or a deteriorating hostage situation — there’s something sick about a legal culture that just sort of decadently slouches toward the use of military tactics for serving warrants or securing evidence against civilians, as a matter of expedience, or to reinforce its own psychology of power. What’s worse is the intimidation factor that these practices imply toward the general public. If the legal system needs to increasingly engage in this sort of violence as a matter of course, that seems like prima facie evidence that the system is no longer governing by the kind of consent and consensus that Holmes identified as the prerequisite of a legitimate body of law. Scary.

Civil War Lectures

I’ve been watching this Open Yale course about the U.S. Civil War, taught by David Blight, when I have a few minutes here and there. In the first few lectures, he goes into the regional differences that surrounded slavery, as well as what was at stake, legally and politically, in the fight over its westward expansion. Some of the narrative is a review of the basics, but then Blight builds a deep context for the dual sovereignty of federalism — and how much more of a cultural controversy it really was in the 19th century. So far, the course is really good.

Slouching Towards Dystopia

Ross Douthat has a piece about the Euro and its impact on poorer members of the Eurozone. And Governor Florio recently had a piece in NJ Spotlight expressing somewhat similar concerns about the socioeconomics of the United States. I don’t know how long free societies can treat so many of their own people so badly without imperiling the stability of their institutions. The West is really living through a great period of political malpractice, as the center-that-hangs-on circles its wagons around a system that is chronically failing its people. Much of the present leadership seems to have missed an important observation by Holmes, which applies as much to the integrity of institutions and property rights as it does to the treatment of criminals:

The first requirement of a sound body of law is, that it should correspond with the actual feelings and demands of the community, whether right or wrong.

I have a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach many days. How many others do?

NYT Endorses Mt. Laurel, Christie Vetoes Land Bank Bill

The Times editorial page expressed its support for a strong Mount Laurel doctrine, as Governor Christie continued seeking to dismantle New Jersey’s Council on Affordable Housing (COAH). Christie also vetoed the latest incarnation of the foreclosure land-bank for affordable housing, but he seems open to a possible reworking of its objectives through new legislation.

Sexist, Union-Busting Creeps

Erin Hatton, a University at Buffalo sociology professor, makes a compelling case that the temp industry played a disproportionate role in creating the American dystopia of the white-collar office:

“For example, in 1971 the recently renamed Kelly Services ran a series of ads in The Office, a human resources journal, promoting the “Never-Never Girl,” who, the company claimed: “Never takes a vacation or holiday. Never asks for a raise. Never costs you a dime for slack time. (When the workload drops, you drop her.) Never has a cold, slipped disc or loose tooth. (Not on your time anyway!) Never costs you for unemployment taxes and Social Security payments. (None of the paperwork, either!) Never costs you for fringe benefits. (They add up to 30% of every payroll dollar.) Never fails to please. (If your Kelly Girl employee doesn’t work out, you don’t pay.)”

Never Never Girl - KellyOh, how nice. I worked as a temp paralegal in New York City for a while after college, in a workplace that my friend Adam accurately described as a white-collar salt mine: 12-hour workdays, no benefits, rules against speaking (supposedly, a firable offense). On one occasion, a seventy-some-year-old man (presumably, unable to retire) threw up all over himself and his workstation, rather than risk going to the bathroom or (God forbid!) miss a day of work when he was sick. All this occurred in the Midtown offices of a white-shoe corporate law firm. Of course, even temp paralegaling in Midtown had a set of perks that wouldn’t be offered to temps at, say, a billing office in Toledo: We got free little glass bottles of Sanpellegrino, passable comped meals at the firm cafeteria, black-car service home to the suburbs on late nights, and a 34th floor view of Manhattan — not to mention what seemed (as a recent college graduate) to be good compensation for our time. But when the case we were working on looked like it might settle, they fired us all by phone, and cancelled the key-card privileges to the building. No “thank you” from the firm. No offer of a reference letter. In fact, we were curtly informed that we were not to contact the employer for any reason after leaving, and that we could pick up our belongings from the office of the temp agency. So, I should probably express my gratitude to the partners at the firm where I worked for providing me an early object lesson on why big corporate law sucks. And it’s not hard for me to believe that the temp industry, and the lawyers who work with it, have been central to replicating degrading working conditions for people across the U.S.

Israel: Affordable Housing Still Not Getting Built

It looks like Israel may be in for its own version of the Mount Laurel experience. A year and a half ago, the government there ostensibly addressed the public’s demands for more affordable housing by adopting some reforms that included incentives for the construction of new rental apartments. Recently, after the fires had died down, Ha’aretz reported that the government began claiming (in response to a lawsuit) that its plan, as written, is ineffective; that it has no power to really accomplish much of anything.

I feel like I’ve read this story before. In New Jersey, it took a decade of toil in the courts and political branches to get from acknowledging the need for affordable housing (Mount Laurel I, 1975) to the development of a framework that could even plausibly begin to address the shortage (Fair Housing Act of 1985). And New Jersey is still one of the hardest places in America in which to find decent, affordable housing. The Mount Laurel cases represent an important legal principle, but it’s one that was drawn from the New Jersey Constitution, and whose footing in other common law jurisdictions remains unclear. These things are maddeningly slow.

My faith in the legal and political systems’ ability to solve the crisis of metropolitan housing affordability is not strong. First, the incentives aren’t there: Property owners, who benefit from high land values, tend to stay and vote and contribute to local politicians; people who can’t afford housing tend to move away. Second, the land market itself is too much of a moving target to lend itself to legislative interventions that will yield predictable results. We’ve seen evidence of this in all of the well-intentioned planning debacles of the 20th century. Given these problems, it’s hard to imagine all of those Israeli kids, who were out in the streets in 2011, now waiting for this to work its way through their country’s version of the system.

If I were there, I would support the litigation and press for policies that would yield more housing — obviously. But I would also re-read Herzl. A limited-equity (LE) model was central to his vision for the country, and it has also worked (at times) to create affordable housing in America. The most promising aspect of the LE model is that, when it works, it truly frees its participants from depending on the sluggish and often capricious actions of the state, and allows like-minded individuals to autonomously pursue their interests outside of the system. Some have even sold their own demand to initial investors, paying out modest distributions to capital investors in exchange for their relatively low risk profiles.

Another Study on Housing Costs

Interest.com has a sobering study, showing that– even at this nadir of the American housing market– the cost of housing remains stratospherically detached from actual personal incomes. The spread was found in about half of all US housing markets, including in nearly every market that contained high concentrations of dynamic industries, educated populations, and existing wealth. Not surprisingly, the disparity was most pronounced in the housing markets around Northern California, Southern California, and New York City.

This is troubling news, because it tracks a phenomenon that LT has covered, and which has been written about in depth by writers at Forbes, the Economist, and elsewhere: That is, there is a growing body of evidence that entrenched, restrictive land use policies are strangling our best cities, creating high barriers to entry in their housing markets, and excluding the very people who would most benefit from the opportunities of their labor markets. Presumably, the same policies are also dampening potential growth in the same regions by excluding a large number of potential economic participants from the local pools, and draining disproportionate shares of local moneys into non-productive real estate acquisition costs.

My fear is that that the hopeful signs that we’ve lately seen of a nascent real estate recovery could be dampened by the structural obstacles posed by a blanket of misguided legal devices that prevent the market from reaching anything like a healthy equilibrium. That is to say, we can’t have a sustained and sustainable recovery in residential real estate until the supply of real estate products begins to actually match the critical mass of demand that exists. And right now, that demand is for smaller, cheaper, and more energy-efficient units in the regions where economic opportunities exist. Instead, what we have is a massive supply of empty McMansions in car-dependent regions like suburban Phoenix, and abandoned houses in urban nightmares like Detroit and Buffalo.

The problem is that individual local land use policies, as determined by local governments, block the kinds of development that might begin to meet this demand. And the voters in a lot of communities have a vested interest in maintaining the stranglehold up to a certain point, because their home values are exaggerated by the overall shortage of units. It’s a vicious cycle, and a dangerous one if we intend to continue to place home-ownership at the center of our economic model for the US economy.

Medical Marijuana: A Dim Green Light

The New Jersey Department of Health is now signing up patients for the state’s newly minted medical marijuana program. The state law that established the framework for the program (N.J.S.A. 24:6I-1, et seq.) was signed by Gov. Jon Corzine in the last days of his outgoing administration, in early 2010. As LT has noted, the program has since been implemented with painful slowness by Gov. Chris Christie’s administration, and has also been subjected to a broad array of land-use obstacles from municipal authorities, as well. (Viz., although six dispensaries have been approved, in theory, only two have yet secured retail space: one in Montclair; and another in Egg Harbor, which is near Atlantic City.)

Update, 8/26: A third location has been secured on U.S. 1 in Woodbridge.

America’s Gated Cities

Forbes is back on the case of how the aggregation of local land use regulations can distort metropolitan land markets, creating barriers to entry in agglomeration economies, and possibly even slowing economic growth by depriving such economies of desperately needed new blood. This closely follows some of the insights that Ryan Avent hit on, last year, in The Gated City.

To the list of grievances against overzoning, I would add the appalling inequity of making entire metropolitan regions effectively off-limits to the middle and working classes, to the young, and to those who have children– including so many of those regions’ own long-time residents. Government and academic research have almost completely dodged the question about what has driven the massive, native-born out-migration from places like California and the Northeast– and whether this migration has been truly voluntary. To hear the press coverage, millions of stupid people have eagerly given up their proximity to friends, family, and relatively stronger economies in order to snap up cheap, new houses in Godforsaken places. I’m cynical, but not that cynical.

The truth is that housing costs have been forcing people out, and it is apparent that the labor forces in those cities that have been abandoned by the US-born working class have been steadily replaced by migrant workers who see being crowded and overworked in an American city as an improvement. On a long-term basis, this is not a sustainable arrangement. But the ultimate challenge is in overcoming the myopic politics of municipal government, writ large, that resists even the most modest changes to existing land use patterns. I really appreciate that Forbes is keeping up on this story. I feel like this is a drum that needs to be beaten until the harm of overzoning becomes clichéed.

Back in the 1970s, in a harbinger of what has come, the New Jersey Court addressed the issue of what was then called exclusionary zoning in its first Mount Laurel decision. In 1983, Justice Pashman described the specific land use devices that were resulting in the wholesale exclusion of market uses in his concurrence to the second Mount Laurel decision. In those days, only the housing markets for poor and working-class people had been strangled. By the 90s and 2000s, the suburban middle class was starting to get screwed. Today, Silicon Valley and Forbes are complaining. Maybe now it becomes an issue.

Gradations of Equality

The Guardian has an interactive chart depicting the complicated palette of civil rights legislation that affects same-sex couples in different American states. I thought it was interesting (in the calamari ice cream sense of the word) to see, diagrammatically, just how many shades of gradation comprise the broader issue of equal rights for same-sex couples, besides the capstone rights-bundle of full marriage equality. Along with drug laws, capital punishment, and eminent domain, this set of topics really illustrates both the promise and the pitfalls of accepting a more federalist approach to nationally controversial (but regionally more settled) topics.

On one hand, the states with more liberal legislatures have gone a long way toward legal equality for same-sex couples– and nobody would dream of seeing such meaningful legislation come out of the U.S. Congress. By authorizing gay marriage legislatively, as New York and several other states have done, these legislatures have invested their policies with a depth of democratic legitimacy that would not automatically flow from court decisions, at any level, that mandated similar results. So, in a sense, this divergence from the national norm represents a healthy opportunity to maximize the advancement of civil-rights objectives in friendly political climates, democratically, on an ad hoc basis.

On the other hand, you have blue-ish states like Pennsylvania, where even legislation to protect the rights of same-sex partners to visit one another in a hospital has not been forthcoming, presumably because of the conservative dynamic of statewide politics. If you view the United States as a federation of state polities, rather than as a single national polity, then it might be fairly easy to say: Well, let Mississippi have its own laws; we’ll do things our way in the Northeast. But a case like Pennsylvania’s brings the complicated question of such federalism (I think) into starker relief.

That is, as citizens of a federal system, how do we deal with the historical legal land boundaries that have ensnared comparable local polities within political jurisdictions– the states– that now have very different power constellations? Should we simply tolerate that, for the time being, the civil rights of an individual in Philadelphia will be far fewer than those of the same individual in New York City or Boston? Should we push for reform in Harrisburg and every other state capital, while implicitly tolerating that the same individual in Oxford, Mississippi will likely have to endure a much longer and more doubtful slog  toward his own eventual legal equality? Or, since these are fundamental civil rights matters, should we push for a national policy which inherently invites the possibility of an ugly national backlash or an eventual national policy that constrains the scope of more favorable local approaches?