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.

The Intrinsic Value of Poor (or Adaptable) Neighborhoods

Howard Husock’s The Poor Side of Town: and Why We Need It looks at the history of American housing policy since Jacob Riis. Exploring the social and economic value of poor neighborhoods, Husock examines how urban processes are intertwined with civil society, and their traditional role in allowing Americans (especially migrants) to shape their lives and obtain an initial foothold in a commercial society. Husock also explores how a century of American public policy — in particular, the growth of prescriptive land use regulations and the failures of large-scale public housing — has interrupted or distorted the participatory, resourceful urban adaptations that once fostered new communities and small-scale property wealth. My review of this timely and thoughtful book is now up at National Review.

Pace Jacob Riis, many working-class neighborhoods of the industrial age, like this street in Philadelphia circa 1910, comprised small rowhouses or other human-scaled housing options. Source: Helen Parrish, National Housing Association (1911).

The Missing Middle for Incremental Growth

I have a new essay in City Journal that looks at Daniel Parolek’s Missing Middle Housing — and the case for both land use and financing policies that encourage builders to develop more midsized housing options in growing regions. The bottom line: traditionally, homeowners could develop additional units as neighborhood markets signaled demand through rising prices. As this demand was met, prices would trend toward an equilibrium — with the smaller units being most affordable.

Today, land use policies often prevent or limit these kinds of resourceful adaptations by owners — and subject any proposed changes to the gauntlet of local politics, where those who oppose any change often have a deep advantage. (Note how even the legal concept of ‘spot zoning’ militates against boards allowing incremental change, by deeming it facially illegitimate to change the rules for a single property outside the comprehensive planning process — even though such gradual adaptation in response to opportunities is how cities have historically grown.) One result, in the aggregate, has been a widespread shortage of affordable housing in growing regions.

Victorian-era rowhouses in New York’s Hudson Valley. Such construction traditionally provided an attractive segment of housing on small amounts of land. Photo: Theo Mackey Pollack.

The Story Behind Erie RR Co. v. Tompkins

This 2019 law review article by Brian L. Frye, “The Ballad of Harry James Tompkins,” is more than an excellent piece of legal history scholarship. It is also a riveting tale of ambitious lawyers, the dangers of freight trains, hoboes during the Great Depression, life in Pennsylvania’s coal country, and a how a host of terrible American class attitudes crossed paths in the aftermath of one poor man’s grievous injuries.

To be honest, I couldn’t stop reading. A taste:

At about 2:30 a.m. on Friday, July 27, 1934, William Colwell of Hughestown, Pennsylvania was awakened by two young men banging on his front door. When he went downstairs, they told him that someone had been run over by a train. Colwell looked out his side window. In the moonlight, he saw someone lying on the ground near the railroad tracks. He went back upstairs and told his wife that there had been an accident. She told him “not to go out, that them fellows was crazy,” but he dressed and went out to help anyway.

Colwell’s house was at the stub-end of Hughes Street, where it ran into the railroad tracks. When he reached the tracks, he discovered his neighbor Harry James Tompkins, about 6 or 10 feet south of Hughes Street. Tompkins had a deep gash on his right temple, and his severed right arm was in between the tracks. Colwell told the young men to go to Mrs. Rentford’s house down the street and call an ambulance. After calling the ambulance, they disappeared.

Here is a direct link to the whole article, “The Ballad of Harry James Tompkins,” at the Akron Law Review.

Elsewhere, Frye gives fascinating accounts of the legal theories, interests, and found-facts that helped shape the US Supreme Court’s landmark decision in the case that resulted, Erie Railroad Co. v. Tompkins (1938) (“There is no federal general common law.”), raising the strong possibility that there was a bit more to the story than what made it into Justice Brandeis’s written opinion.

My own small contribution to preserving the history of the Erie case: I added a marker to Google Maps near the abandoned railroad crossing where Mr. Tompkins was hurt in 1934.

A Time to Build

Traditional city rooflines on Arthur Avenue in the Bronx. Photo: Theo Mackey Pollack

The Wall Street Journal reports today that the United States needs 5.5 million new housing units. That’s a serious backlog. As a nation, we are not building homes quickly enough to keep up with population growth. This is the story behind the soaring prices we hear about in the news. Digging a bit deeper, it could also be a key factor in falling birthrates and adults who continue to live in their parents’ home. So, how do we get serious about building the homes people need? Shouldn’t the market be driving toward an equilibrium?

The market is hot (again), but the shortage is chronic. Part of the problem is undoubtedly zoning, especially in the regions with the greatest demand. In New Jersey, the Mount Laurel doctrine has been a valuable tool since the 1970s, when it established the basic legal principle that zoning is a state action that may not be used to exclude entire classes of state residents from particular communities; to do so is inconsistent with the 1947 New Jersey Constitution. (I simplify, but not too much.) The New Jersey Fair Housing Act, which the state legislature enacted in 1985 to follow the Mount Laurel cases, has helped produce a significant number of regulated affordable units, over the years. Yet Mount Laurel, though based on an exemplary principle, has invited constant political resistance. Its implementation has been obnoxiously complicated. Worse, it does little tangible good for New Jersey residents who don’t fall into the income band for affordable housing — or even many who do, because the demand always outstrips the availability of units.

Yet today, more than four decades after Mount Laurel crystallized the concept of exclusionary zoning, the impacts of a chronic housing shortage reach much further up New Jersey’s socioeconomic hierarchy than they did in 1974, when the first case was argued before the New Jersey Supreme Court. That is, there remains a severe shortage of decent, affordable housing units for poor and working-class people. But there is also a dearth of homes for sale (or rent) at higher price points, in many communities — a bottleneck similar to ones that have formed, to greater or lesser degrees, in other high-cost metropolitan regions throughout the world. Not surprisingly, out-migration continues apace. Yet immigration keeps the overall population going up. Those who stay pay more for less.

So how can this unmet housing need be met? And should housing policy necessarily be bureaucratized, or could it be pursued more effectively by unlocking the private production of more market-built, non-income-regulated units? One concept that the Mount Laurel formulas acknowledge is filtering. That is, older units (often well built!) will become more affordable, through market forces, when newer units are produced quickly enough to soak up a lot of the high-end demand. This is how, for example, poor and working-class people inherited the incredible (if neglected) Art Deco apartments of the Grand Concourse (for a time — they are getting expensive again!).

I believe the next frontier will be a process of artfully (at best) customizing and improving zoning laws. Done wisely, this will foster the construction of market-rate homes that complement our existing neighborhoods while improving land values and strengthening public finances.

The Sinister History of America’s Urban Geography

A 1939 “residential security” map of Essex County, New Jersey. The eastern half largely comprises of Newark and the Oranges.

Mapping Inequality provides a fascinating time-sink: a zoomable map of the United States overlaid with New-Deal era local maps of most major cities, depicting what we today would call redlining. Typically, this term brings to mind the practice of dicing up neighborhoods and excluding African-American areas from mortgage eligibility. The heyday of this coincided with the heyday of post-war, first-time suburban home ownership in the United States — and that timing has been identified as a key source of persisting family wealth disparities between Black and White Americans. (The achievements of the Civil Rights era, and further legislation aimed at dismantling redlining, did not come about until the tail-end of the post-war boom — starting in the mid-1960’s — by which point many of the regional ethno-geographic patterns had already been established, and property values had begun to increase significantly.)

The map above depicts Essex County, New Jersey, where I live, and which has the same boundaries today as it had in 1939. Newark, the county seat and largest city, is roughly on the right; many of its inner-ring/streetcar suburbs are roughly in the center; low-density townships (then still partly rural outside Millburn and Caldwell — now mainly affluent suburbs) are on the left. As you might guess, there is a hierarchy of colors: areas mapped in green were considered prime investments, followed by blue (still desirable); yellow (declining); and red (dangerous). Zooming in on the neighborhoods of Essex County reveals that many of the patterns of neighborhood gradation that were adjudged by appraisers for the federal Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC) in 1939 overlap with the characteristics of the same neighborhoods today. That is to say, if the green-red palette were to be roughly translated as neighborhoods that are predominantly wealthy, middle-class, working-class, or poor, its assessments would still align with many districts.

Many of these maps contain explanatory notes for each color-coded district, and many of these notes bear out a pervasive practice of correlating African-American neighborhoods with red districts. Several neighborhoods that today are mainly Black were already Black neighborhoods by 1939, and the matter-of-fact prejudice expressed in otherwise mundane business notes leaves no doubt that mortgage lending — at least during the late Depression — was based on an overtly discriminatory calculus.

Also remarkable, given the conventional understanding about what redlining was, is how clear it is that these maps were also used to justify discrimination against other groups — including many of European origin. Thus, Italian and Jewish enclaves were singled out for negative treatment. Many poor and working-class neighborhoods with mostly European residents were classified red, just as Black neighborhoods were. In both Newark, N.J. and New York City (maps are also posted for each of the five NYC boroughs) many of the red districts described as “slums” encompassed residents of all ethnic and racial backgrounds. And working-class neighborhoods that avoided being fatally redlined were typically shaded yellow — branding their properties as the second least desirable class of collateral.

The impact of these maps is not clear. The federal HOLC of 1939 was not a formal precursor to the private banks that — with government backing and subsidies — financed the massive suburban development wave that took place after World War II. A study of early HOLC lending in the Philadelphia region found that interest rates, but not lending decisions per se, were influenced by the maps’ color-coding; and that private lenders had other sources of comparable information about granular urban economic and demographic trends. Sources like fire insurance maps, meanwhile, would have allowed lenders to analyze the building stock in any slice of any city.

Another study found that the HOLC had hired private-sector appraisers to complete the evaluations and explanatory notes for the residential security maps, suggesting the conclusions they contain represent prevailing assumptions in the real estate industry of that time. Regardless of their direct impacts, the patterns in these maps bear an uncanny resemblance to the enduring patterns of racially and economically segregated housing that solidified in post-war metropolitan America. How these maps and the lending policies that they shaped might align with early land-use zoning maps developed around the same time is another topic for exploration.

It is worth noting that private covenants were still common for controlling land use in the early days of zoning, as they represented one of the few traditional legal devices for doing so prior to the rise of public land use law — and many of these had discriminatory provisions of their own.

Apartments Are Hot — In the Suburbs

The Times has another article jumping on the bandwagon about the supposed ongoing urban exodus — with a twist. This one reports anecdotal evidence that apartments in suburban towns are seeing a surge in popularity among fleeing urbanites. (Sorry for the paywall. If you’re not a NYT subscriber, you can usually still read a few articles for free if you log in with a Google account.)

I’m going to take a wait-and-see approach to this trend. I have long believed that the New York City region, and similar metropolitan regions with high housing costs, ultimately need to expand their geographic footprint of multifamily housing beyond its current locations to accommodate long-term population growth. I still believe that. But what we are seeing in 2020 is a separate and discrete trend, driven by people’s more immediate desire to get out of the city, and to have more room, as work and home suddenly compete for the same space.

It’s not clear yet how these trends are going to intersect with the housing markets in the suburbs. If working from home (WFH) turns into a permanent phenomenon that outlasts the pandemic, then some of the built-up pressure may come off of competitive regions, including their inner-ring suburbs, as people are free to go further afield and seek permanently larger spaces. In such a scenario, there may be additional suburban growth at the metropolitan fringe, but less demand for new apartments nearer to the core. On the other hand, if most people return to their daily commute (or something close to it), then the suburbs may find themselves needing to absorb more commuters — as trends indicated before 2020 — and doing so in the form of more apartments.

It’s an interesting question — and one, I think, that is still very open. If I had to bet, I would predict a little bit of both, especially in places like Northern and Central New Jersey: a continued need for growth in demand for (1) compact, commutable units and (2) larger, WFH-friendly properties at the fringe, and beyond. In both scenarios, good planning will be a necessity to ensure that new growth takes the form of attractive and sustainable neighborhoods.

New apartments take advantage of commuter rail service in suburban South Orange, N.J.

Zoning Reform: a Return to Traditional Norms

My latest article at TAC‘s New Urbs is a response to the recent op-ed in the Wall Street Journal by Donald Trump and Ben Carson. Contrary to the president’s rhetoric, allowing people to build neighborhoods that evolve in response to land markets is an old common-law tradition — and one that has been increasingly distorted by local governments over the last century, under an ever-more-restrictive morass of zoning requirements.

I argue that measures that would restore even some space for neighborhoods to grow organically, in response to demand, ought to be embraced by Americans across the political spectrum. New laws in California, Oregon, and Minneapolis are good first steps. And proposals to condition certain streams of federal infrastructure funding on having non-exclusionary local land-use laws in the communities that benefit from such taxpayer investments should not be dismissed out of hand.

Piano Tuner Defeats Casino Agency — But Why?

Here’s some good news: in New Jersey, the government can’t take your land for a public purpose unless it has, actually, um, specified a public purpose. That’s good. But here’s the bad news: in Atlantic City, a state agency called the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority has spent the past five years trying to do precisely that, to a local couple. Specifically, the agency tried to leverage the state’s power of eminent domain to take away Charles and Linda Birnbaum’s three-story building and “bank” it for an unspecified future use.

Here’s some human context about the decision, from Amy Rosenberg at the Philadelphia Inquirer:

Birnbaum retained the right to keep the home his parents, who were Holocaust survivors, bought in 1969, because the state’s Casino Reinvestment Development Authority could not provide assurance that its plans for the property and surrounding area “would proceed in the reasonably foreseeable future,” the court ruled…. Birnbaum’s mother, Dora, lived in the house on Oriental Avenue until 1998, when she was killed during a home invasion. Birnbaum, who lives in Hammonton with his wife, rents out the upper floors and uses the first floor for his piano-tuning business.

Your tax dollars at work, New Jersey. It’s good that the court said no. But maybe this case is a signal that it’s time for the state to stop acting as a legal henchman for casino developers. Casino gambling has failed to bring back Atlantic City, after more than four decades. It has, however, destroyed much of what once remained of the traditional seaside urbanism of America’s prime Victorian-era beach resort. And it has resulted in perverse scenarios like the one at the center of this lawsuit.

Minneapolis 2040: Have the YIMBYs Already Won?

Two historic houses in Minneapolis. Photo: McGhiever via Wikimedia Commons

Time to note a major victory: the City of Minneapolis is on board with YIMBYism in a serious, substantial way. Minneapolis has become the first major U.S. city to adopt a comprehensive plan that eliminates single-family-only zoning districts. And, although its amended zoning still caps out development of many parcels at just three units, it will still (in broad theoretical terms) allow builders to triple the number of housing units within those neighborhoods. That’s impressive. And since housing markets are more regional than municipal, and Minneapolis is the largest city in its region, I predict this legislation (presuming it passes the remaining hurdles) will have a salutary effect on housing affordability throughout the Twin Cities, for years to come. This really is great news.

In a related story, the Oregon Legislature may soon consider a Democratic bill to eliminate single-family-only zoning districts in cities with a population of 10,000 or more. The fact that the lead sponsor is the House Speaker indicates the degree of acceptance that our kind of zoning analysis has attained, politically, in a very short time. Of course, there is pushback, as there always is in politics. But once it comes into focus, the picture is pretty clear, and economy, equity, and the environment all call for one basic solution: expanding the latitude of property owners to build more housing in response to the need for … more housing. People see the need to stop protecting a calcified status quo that is working for fewer and fewer people.

When I first started writing here about exclusionary zoning laws and their distortion of housing prices (way back in 2010, when I was a law student at Rutgers) it remained a very arcane issue. The basic nexus between restrictive land use policies and declining affordability had been well documented in New Jersey case law through the Mount Laurel decisions of the 1970s and 80s. But outside the local community of housing activists, the slow crisis of an artificial, regulatory shortage of housing units in growing metropolitan regions was hardly on anyone’s radar. Today, housing activists on both right and left accept this common-sense analysis: zoning laws that limit development of new units play a major part in the lack of housing affordability in growing cities.

I got into this issue because I saw people being displaced from their long-term neighborhoods across the New York & New Jersey region in the late 1990s and early 2000s — and nobody with a voice seemed to be noticing. Since then, the soaring cost of housing options in metropolitan America has become, perhaps, the most glossed-over factor among the myriad economic challenges facing Millennials. Now, finally, we are making some real progress, and although we’re not there yet, I am more optimistic than ever.

Cheers to everyone who is out there working on the front lines.