How Zoning Paralyzed American Cities

Arts & Letters

“Now more than ever, we need cities to grow,” writes Nolan Gray in a new book.

Arbitrary Lines: How Zoning Broke the American City and How to Fix It, M. Nolan Gray (Island Press, 2022), 256 pages.

It may be hard to believe today, but roughly a century ago, Americans could largely do what they wanted on their own land. All of that changed on July 25, 1916, when New York City adopted the nation’s first comprehensive zoning ordinance. Zoning regulates land uses and density—a series of “arbitrary lines” lines on a map telling you how and where to live and work—which with the passage of time spread outward from the Big Apple to Berkeley, carving up nearly every settled part of this country in between. 

Still, zoning was for years a localized backwater, the province of ink-stained professionals and amateur busybodies—but no longer. Home prices and rents are at record highs today, and the sticker shock is spreading from coastal hotspots to Sun Belt cities that were once an affordable refuge for hardworking families. Zoning, according to a growing consensus, is inflating away the American Dream. Cutting this red tape has suddenly become a cause célèbre for local “Yes, In My Backyard” (YIMBY) activists to presidential administrations.  

Now, with M. Nolan Gray’s Arbitrary Lines: How Zoning Broke the American City and How to Fix It, zoning reform has the book for its moment. Arbitrary Lines is at once a primer and a manifesto, a highly readable introduction to zoning’s history and harms as well as a bracing call for a post-zoning city. He argues that these arbitrary lines raise housing costs, lower economic growth, harm the environment, and deepen racial and economic divides. How is that in a country steeped in freedom, opportunity, and progress, asks Gray, that a “stodgy rule book” came to control “virtually every facet of American life”?

It didn’t start out this way. “By today’s standards, New York’s 1916 zoning code was surprisingly liberal,” observes Gray. Berkeley’s slightly later districting ordinance, also instituted in 1916, was a clearer signal of what was to come, establishing the first single-family zoning district. By the end of that year, still just eight municipalities had some form of zoning. But then the federal government stepped in, and property rights were never the same: then-Commerce Secretary Herbert Hoover, a big promoter of zoning, established and pushed a model zoning ordinance nationwide, and in 1926 the Supreme Court gave its blessing in Euclid v. Ambler. In 1923, 218 communities had adopted zoning, and by 1936 more than 1,000 had done so.

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Even then, zoning codes were far more flexible than what we have today. All of this began to “unravel as early as the late 1960s,” observes Gray, “as thousands of cities and suburbs across the country aggressively expanded use segregation, significantly tightened density rules, and imposed months of additional public review on development applications.” One reason for this, as Dartmouth’s Bill Fischel explains in The Homevoter Hypothesis, was grounded in the era’s rapid inflation and generous tax allowances encouraging homeownership as an investment, and consequently incentivizing zoning to protect the value of their homes. By blocking new housing, forcing higher-quality housing, and adding a Kafkaesque permitting process to the entire affair, costs went up and up from the 1970s onward, well beyond the cost of construction. In high-cost cities, more than half the cost of buying a home goes to pay this regulatory tax.

Arbitrary Lines busts myths left and right. Zoning has never actually been about keeping, say, the glue factory away from a daycare or carefully planning for future growth. These rules care far more about wielding state power to enforce nebulous notions of “community character” than directly regulating externalities, such as noise or pollution. It’s about protecting elite interests and incumbent wealth for whoever was lucky enough to get in under the zoning wire, argues Gray. Want zoning for its certainty? Try again—in practice, permitting development has become highly discretionary and chaotic, changing land-use rules all the time through special permits, ad-hoc variances, and rezonings. And a simple view of zoning overlooks its more unsavory elements, like the way in which these rules first perpetuated by New Yorkers to keep Eastern European Jews out of Fifth Avenue became Jim Crow’s Southern savior post-Civil Rights-era. 

The cost of this “zoning straightjacket” is enormous. It binds cities from growing, for one thing. We’d all be 36 percent richer today if New York, San Francisco, and San Jose alone zoned for growth. But it also means American’s great tradition of moving to opportunity—migrating to the economic frontier, as it were—is basically over; high housing costs just eat up your extra earnings. It’s like California struck gold again, but without the gold rush. So, Americans stay stuck in place, or sprawl and crawl in traffic until they find a place they can afford. Workers struggle to find accessible work, and parents find it hard to raise a family or live near a good school. Then there are the environmental costs and continued segregation, reinforced by decades of woeful public housing. In fact, after reading Arbitrary Lines, one gets the sneaking suspicion that every problem facing urban America is ultimately downstream of housing.  

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Yet for zoning’s significance to our country’s future—and our own—surprisingly few people have a clear sense of what land-use regulations are about or their origin story. Even fewer know the playbook for reform. That, in short, is where Nolan Gray comes in. There have been other notable writings for the housing-reform movement: Ryan Avent’s The Gated City and Matt Yglesias’s The Rent Is Too Damn High, Edward Glaeser’s Triumph of the City and Alain Bertaud’s Order without Design, as well as Conor Dougherty’s Golden Gates on the rise of the YIMBY movement, among others. Gray’s aim is to bring this work to bear to shift the public’s perception of acceptable reforms in a decidedly more pro-housing direction. 

But, as Nolan Gray confesses, “Merely reforming zoning cannot be the end goal.” Sure, he says, we should stop mandating single-family homes, allow the housing and parking that the market demands, and decriminalize naturally affordable housing types. But without fundamentally rethinking a system that assumes underpaid and overworked local bureaucrats can map out the “optimal mix, scale, and location of every conceivable land use in an entire city,” we will “inevitably trend back toward the current mess.” America should learn from no-zoning Houston, says Gray. 

Is Nolan Gray really calling for zoning abolition? Yes, he is. And before you dismiss him—perhaps Houston isn’t your cup of tea, or maybe you simply like your home and its zoning, thank you very much—consider that Houstonians agreed with Nolan’s view in 1948, 1962, and 1993, killing zoning each time it came up for a vote, largely thanks to working-class voters. What proved crucial to rejecting zoning was Houston’s allowance of deed restrictions, whereby neighbors can voluntarily opt into zoning-like restrictions and design standards to ensure whatever character of their community they desire for the next 25 to 30 years. And while neighbors get a say over their neighborhood, Houston as a whole is still allowed to grow. It builds housing at 14 times the rate of its peers and, in the process, has become one of the most affordable and diverse cities in the country. 

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Perhaps one of the greatest challenges ahead for YIMBYism is that today’s housing crisis is no longer solely a New York or Bay Area affliction, but an Atlanta and Austin, Boise and Tampa crisis. Buying a home in these places is now upwards of 50 percent more expensive than it was a year ago, accounting for higher mortgage interest rates. Trying to convince socialist county supervisors in San Francisco that private housing is good is hard enough; try convincing a red-state lawmaker they should “end single-family zoning” to fight climate change, as Gray also suggests. Pro-housing allies will need arguments and policies fine-tuned to the Sun Belt frontier. Allowing homeowners the freedom to unlock the rising value of their property by building a backyard apartment is one such compelling pitch. Zoning reform is pro-property rights, in other words, while also being pro-family and pro-worker, not to mention that limiting social mobility and access to opportunity is fundamentally unfair. These are the sorts of foundational messages for policy proposals that can reach across the aisle and geographies.

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“Now more than ever, we need cities to grow,” says Nolan Gray, and he couldn’t be more right. The same will be true across entire metros, as fast-growing suburbs such as Frisco, TX, rapidly urbanize and become job centers of their own. Policies favoring elite homebuyers over young families trying to afford a starter home or their own children trying to rent a room is a form of regulatory inequality that must end. Ironically, urban planners would become more important, not less, in such a future. They would plan in advance of growth and focus on boosting quality of life rather than spending their days micro-managing lot sizes. In the place of arbitrary lines, intentional leadership—and the freedom to build the American Dream. 

This New Urbanism series is supported by the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation. Follow New Urbs on Twitter for a feed dedicated to TAC’s coverage of cities, urbanism, and place.

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