Edward Glaeser on the Housing Shortage

In his recent City Journal article, “Free to Build,” Edward Glaeser begins to reframe the zoning-driven housing crisis as a national phenomenon, requiring national solutions, rather than a merely local or coastal problem. Advocating for the use of federal policy to unwind the cumulative, national effects of zoning overreach strikes me as a stark milestone in the right-leaning policy world. That said, I think this may represent one facet of a pent-up, multipartisan response to the NIMBYism that, for generations, has damaged the US economy and environment through land-use policies that promote rent-seeking behavior and de facto segregation at the expense of traditional, participatory, incremental urban growth.

Photo by the author of some traditional apartment houses located in Cape May, New Jersey, illustrating how traditional urban housing is an artfcat of more liberal historical building laws.
Traditional urban housing is an artifact of more liberal historical building laws. (TMP)

A Quick Status Check on Zoning Reform

I have an article at Strong Towns that looks at recent zoning-reform developments from around the US, including — primarily — efforts to reduce the footprints of exclusively single-family residential zones. The goal of such efforts is allow for legal two-family homes, mother-in-law houses, studio apartments, and similar lower-impact arrangements on privately owned land. Check it out for a snapshot of reforms, and early results, in Minneapolis, Oregon, and California.

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.

‘Yes’ on More Humane Farming Practices

The Star-Ledger has an op-ed by Peter Singer and Paul Shapiro in support of a bill (A-3250) that is working its way through the New Jersey General Assembly. The law would ban the use of gestation crates for pigs on New Jersey farms. The companion bill passed the Senate in June, 35-1. According to the authors, similar laws are already on the books throughout Europe, and in nine other American states. Seems like a step in the right direction.

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.

A Map of Early U.S. Politics

Following up on an earlier LT discussion about how maps can be used to describe complex, non-geographic topics: An interesting blog, Mapping the Nation has reproduced a very map-like timeline of American political history from 1776 through Reconstruction. The chart not only illustrates the political parties and presidents during the period, but also the chief justices of the Supreme Court, the leaders of Congress, and a general legislative history of the federal government.

The page on which it appears is maintained by Susan Schulten, who teaches at the University of Denver. In addition to this image, her blog includes a nice collection of rare documents relating to the westward expansion of the United States, and also to the geography and politics of American slavery.

TELUS Research

I’ve been working on a project for a research center in New Brunswick over the last few months. The legwork has involved conducting interviews with officials at Metropolitan Planning Organizations (MPOs) and state DOTs to document their experiences with TELUS, a database-management platform that’s employed for logistical and compliance purposes. Agencies use the software to assemble their federally-mandated Transportation Improvement Plans (TIPs), track their infrastructure spending, classify and prioritize individual projects, and share project data. A web-based version helps officials comply with SAFETEA-LU requirements for public transparency; a land-use projection model works in tandem with TELUS to allow agencies to predict future traffic and land use patterns, as well as employment and population growth.

From what we’ve learned, TELUS seems to have been a big help for state and local transportation agencies. Instead of copying information back and forth between e-mail accounts, Access databases, and Excel sheets (as had been the practice), those that adopted TELUS now have a global framework for managing their project data and making it available. One problem that dogs all of the software in this niche is a lack of standardization among competing platforms. A number of state and local agencies have developed their own programs to carry out the same tasks that TELUS handles. The programs all seem to have been developed separately, with little regard for compatibility with others. In some cases agencies require their subordinate partners to submit data in their proprietary formats, making the adoption of an outside framework complicated. There’s a period of this that occurs in every wave of development– whether it’s rail gauges, or radio frequencies, or operating systems. Individual participants can waste a lot of effort and money by picking the wrong horse. It’s interesting (as an observer).

At the end of the research, two observations (personal, not directly related to TELUS) stand out. The first is the enormous role that the federal government plays in local infrastructure projects, especially in conservative, rural parts of the country. The second is the lopsided preference that federal funding gives to highway infrastructure, as opposed to passenger rail, freight rail, bicycle/pedestrian provisions, and ferry/shipping services. It’s almost a clichĂ© that mass-transit is an insolvent business model, and one that requires massive public investments, while cars and trucks remain ubiquitous symbols of potent American individualism. Imagine how that picture would change if, instead of the highway system, the feds maintained all of the rail infrastructure, and allowed private companies to use it, for profit, at little or no fee? If the highways were all maintained by private entities who had to raise revenues through tolls, or forgo their maintenance?

I’ll post a link to our report when it’s published.

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?