December 7, 2015

ILYA SOMIN: The Emerging Cross-Ideological Consensus On Zoning.

In recent years, and especially over the last few months, economists and other public policy experts across the political spectrum have come to realize that zoning rules are a major obstacle to affordable housing and economic opportunity for the poor and lower middle class. By artificially restricting new construction, zoning and other similar land-use restrictions greatly increase the price of housing, and prevents the market from adjusting to increasing demand. This emerging consensus is a good sign, though it may be difficult to translate it into effective policy initiatives.

Libertarians and other free market advocates have criticized zoning on such grounds for decades, at least as far back as the late Bernard Siegan’s classic 1972 book Land Use Without Zoning. Present-day pro-market scholars such as Steve Horwitz and Harvard economist Edward Glaeser have continued in a similar vein. More recently, however, the critique of zoning has been taken up by prominent left of center commentators. One particularly notable example is this widely quoted recent speech by Jason Furman, Chairman of President Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers. . . .

Furman’s speech includes a good overview of the academic literature on the subject, which finds that in many cities, zoning restrictions artificially inflate the cost of housing by as much as 50 percent. Other prominent left of center commentators who have recently advanced similar critiques of zoning include Paul Krugman, Noah Smith, and Matthew Yglesias. As Krugman puts it, “this is an issue on which you don’t have to be a conservative to believe that we have too much regulation.”

The growing left-wing critique of zoning is particularly significant because the most liberal cities also tend to be ones with the most restrictive zoning laws, and the highest housing costs. In earlier posts on this subject, I have argued that this tendency is probably the result of voters’ ignorance of the effects of zoning, rather than callous indifference to the needs of the poor. Nonetheless, it would be good if more politically influential liberals become aware of the problem, and began advocate measures to curb zoning.

If you give politicians power, they will use that power on behalf of themselves and their supporters rather than the general public, to precisely the extent that they can get away with it. Lefties occasionally grasp individual applications of this principle, but never the general rule. Or, if they do, they cease to be lefties.

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