Monday, April 30, 2007

Zoning Laws (Entire Series In A Single Post)

I've decided to put all the parts to this series in one post, in consecutive order, and update this post each time I add another part and link to it. So, here it is, in its entirety so far:

Zoning Laws (Part 1) - State Control Over Life

My grandfather had as one of his rules of life, this: he would never live (or work) anywhere that would not allow him to walk to work. Such can only be a dream for me. I've never been able to even come close to living close to where I work, or working close to where I live. This is true for many Americans.

Modern zoning laws have among the highest negative impact, and least acknowledged affect, of any legislations of civil government. They are foundational to the American way of life itself, yet are instrumental in causing or enhancing many of our social ills. They dictate where people can live, work, shop, recreate - every aspect of life is governed by zoning laws. Not only this, but they essentially create segregation by class, and are responsible for creating many of the problems with homelessness we see. Low job availability, long commutes, traffic jams, urban sprawl, racism and contempt for the poor are planted, watered and harvested by zoning laws. Yet most people don't have a clue that this is true.

I'll be looking at zoning laws and their affects in this new series.

Zoning Laws (Part 2) Segregation by Class

One of my blogging friends recently wrote that he lived in a well-to-do community and that the churches in communities like his needed to be creative in carrying out God's commands to help the poor. Wealthy communities have very few or no visible poor at all. Another blogging friend wrote that he grew up in a very poor community and that the poverty he experienced gave him some reservations about capitalism as an economic system.

One thing these two had in common, and this is true in news stories of every nature, is that entire communities have a class status. They are wealthy, or poor, or lower-middle class, or the 'hood, or upper-middle class or blue collar, etc. We live in communities with a fairly consistent level of wealth of those who live there. We simply accept this as part of the landscape of life and never give it a second thought, or even a first one.

Starting with residential housing, zoning laws establish minimum lot sizes on which a house can be built. The simple law of supply and demand establishes "market value" for that community. Because there is a minimum lot size, and a corresponding market value for that size lot, zoning laws effectively establish the minimum level of wealth required to live in that community. Communities that are more desirable to live in have higher wealth thresholds. This effectively eliminates the ability of the poor to live in those communities.

In part 1, I mentioned that I've never been able to live in a community where I worked. If I were allowed to buy smaller lots, even to build a smaller house, than what zoning laws currently allow, I could live close to work. But I'm not allowed to do that, so I can't live in the community where I work.

Zoning Laws (Part 3) Segregation by Class

Zoning laws also limit the number of dwellings and/or families that can live within a piece of property. "Single family" residential is just that. One family must bear the burden of the minimum "market value" price of the minimum lot size combined with maximum numbers of families allowed to live there.

Only recently did my county allow secondary "in-law" units to be built on a piece of property. They're starting to notice the immense problems their zoning laws have created. The sad part is that they fail to realize their laws created the problems to begin with.

Zoning Laws (Part 4) Segregation by Class

I live in the fourth largest, and the most expensive housing market in the US - the San Francisco Bay Area. Since zoning laws essentially mandate a minimum level of wealth necessary to live in any given community, each community has its own threshold. Generally, the closer to the financial center of the area, the more expensive the housing because that's where the best jobs are.

But since zoning laws create an artificial threshold for living in any given community, job holders in the wealthier communities must live further away in outlying communities. Back in the 90's, the Bay Area's more upscale suburban cities began to discover that most of their "essential" city employees (i.e. police, fire, parks maintenance, etc.) weren't residents of those cities. They lived elsewhere. That's because it was impossible for these people to live in those cities on the salaries they received - the artificially imposed housing prices were too high. And since the only candidates for these positions had to live far away in less expensive communities, it became much more difficult to fill these positions.

Imagine passing a law that mandates the segregation of people according to class. A huge uproar among the people would occur. Such a thing would be unthinkable in America today. Although completely unintended, this is exactly what zoning laws accomplish.

Zoning Laws (Part 5) Bad Traffic

Zoning laws effectively establish a minimum wealth level to live in a given community. But jobs within those communities do not all pay at a level that allows the worker to live there. Most must live elsewhere. The only way for them to get to work is to commute from an affordable community where they live to a community that will offer jobs that pay well enough.

This creates bad traffic. Each community I've worked in has been way beyond my means to live there. The last few have been very wealthy suburban bedroom communities that have also had huge corporate business parks, stretching for miles, that offer tens of thousands of jobs at all pay levels. The freeways are parking lots at commute hour.

Zoning Laws (Part 6) Separation of the Poor

Since zoning laws essentially set the threshold wealth level of each community, the poor have little choice but to live only in the communities that they can afford. This means that the poor are usually lumped all together in a given community. The rich can afford to live elsewhere, so they usually do.

When the poor are lumped into one community, and the rich and their businesses can afford to thrive in other communities, the poor have diminished access to good jobs, thus reinforcing their poverty.

Zoning Laws (Part 7) Scarcity of Lots, Not Land

Because zoning laws have set minimum lot sizes within a jurisdiction, not only is a minimum wealth threshold set for living there, the number of lots available in that community is fixed. Land owners do not have the freedom to subdivide into lots small enough to accommodate market needs. Instead, the number of lots available is limited by law. An artificially low supply of lots is maintained, and with no decrease in demand, land costs are artificially higher than they would be with a free market. This further hinders the poor (or middle class) from being able to live in a desirable community.

Zoning Laws (Part 8) Israel as Community

The last time I read through the four gospels, I noticed something I hadn't seen before. Quite often, Jesus' dealing with the people came in settings where the social classes were integrated. In the account of the woman who wiped His feet with her tears, the Pharisee thought to himself that if Jesus knew what manner of woman she was, he wouldn't be associating with her. But the striking thing about this account is that she was in that very Pharisee's house. If he knew what manner of woman she was, why was she in his house to begin with? It seems that the poor had access to not only the neighborhoods the rich lived in, but sometimes to their property too.

Gleaning laws, and others, put the rich and poor together in the same community. Ruth, a Moabite woman, happened upon a prominent member of the community, Boaz. The rest is history as they say. When rich and poor live together in the same community, it is far easier for the rich to minister to the poor. God understands this well, but we moderns prefer zoning laws that prevent such mercy.

Zoning Laws (Part 9) McMansion Suburbia

SuperSize me. American suburbia has entered a phase where house sizes are continually increasing for the same (or smaller) size families that live in them. This is often criticized as consumerism run rampant, is looked upon as an increase in selfishness and materialism, and is preached against by both environmentalists and religious leaders. But a closer look reveals something different.

Since zoning laws dictate minimum lot sizes, and thus limits the availability of lots, an artificially high price of land results. This is true of land prices, but not of construction costs. So over time there is an increase of land value versus house value. The piece of dirt is the biggest factor in the price of a home. What this does is creates a false sense of value through building a larger house. If a buyer could buy a 1000 square foot house for $1.1 million and a 3000 square foot house for $1.2 million, most are likely to opt for the latter. Those marginalized people who can afford a $1.1M house, but not a $1.2M house will simply buy the 3000 square foot house in the next community level down. Living life in one's house is more important than living on the land that house is on, even though the land costs more. For only 10% more money, one can obtain three times the house on the same piece of land. So, for the value, the largest house makes the most sense. Developers know this very well. People want a house, but the land is the biggest cost.

This has led to the latest building fad here in the San Francisco area, known as the "knockdown." People are now buying houses, let's say a ranch house built in the 60's, and they don't like the ugly architecture or small size. They bulldoze the house, because it's value is so small compared to the land on it. They then build a new, larger house in its place. It sounds ridiculous, but it makes economic sense.

Now something about value. Buying the "family size" product at the store is of value because at a larger size, the cost per unit is lower. It is more valuable for a family to buy this size than twice the amount of the regular size. But there's a side to it that we tend not to think about. For the individual, actually buying the smaller size, even though it has a higher cost per unit, can have the most value. If the bulk size item is too large for me to consume and will go bad before I can use it, or if I don't have the space to store it, then the smaller size is the best value for me because I won't be wasting money on something I can't fully use.

But for many people, zoning laws actually prohibit them from gaining the best value in land because the smaller size land item is unavailable. Imagine that. Getting a good land value is against the law! So people simply do what is the next best thing. Value is transferred from the land to the house. McMansion suburbia has more to do with reacting to zoning laws than with greed and selfishness.

Zoning Laws (Part 10) Combined With Other Laws

Zoning laws are combined with other laws to create some more road blocks to freedom. Tax laws are frequently used along with zoning laws to create excessive incomes for governments to play with. Property is re-zoned according to the amount of tax money that is projected for governments to receive. Property taxes are often used to fund public schools. Sales taxes also act as an incentive for governments to re-zone property as commercial. Eminent domain laws are used to confiscate private property in the re-zoning process without regard to private property rights.

Zoning Laws (Part 11) Combined With Other Laws (2)

Zoning laws can also have a combined effect with other laws such as strict building codes, local building ordinances and building permit processes. Building codes and ordinances make construction more expensive, and the permit process not only adds more cost, but sets a time limit for completion of construction. This adds hidden expense in that a greater amount of money is needed up-front for a project.

The overall effect of all these laws is a higher minimum standard of living. But this standard of living is mandated by law without allowing for the means to attain this standard. People who cannot meet this minimum level created by law sometimes end up homeless. Homelessness is often mandated by law without people knowing that this is the case.

Zoning Laws (Part 12) Zoning As Theft

Jim Fedako at Anti-Positivist carries one of his own articles on zoning laws. He suggests that zoning laws constitute theft of private property, and those who support zoning laws are the thieves. Read it here.

To see all the posts in this series in reverse consecutive order, click here.

No comments:

Post a Comment