Friday, May 26, 2006
What's the biggest housing problem in America's booming exurbs? From the news in Manassas, Va., outside Washington, the local government apparently thinks that it's overcrowding. Are there lots of tenements in Manassas, with parents, seven kids, and a grandmother squeezed into a two-room cold-water flat, five stories above a packed street full of push-cart vendors, with only a single tenement house outhouse in a side alley? No, that was New York in 1910, the last time that Americans worried seriously about overcrowding. The twist in Manassas is, of course, that the independent city's overcrowding laws are being enforced largely against Hispanic families, who often share a house as a way of coping with the Virginia suburbs' extraordinary housing costs. Although Manassas recently repealed a restrictive 2005 "family" redefinition, the city still rigorously enforces its overcrowding laws; the city even has an "overcrowding hotline" through which residents can make anonymously tips about neighbors.
Today's news is that HUD is investigating whether the Manassas law violates the Fair Housing Act by having an unlawfully disproportionate effect on against Hispanics.
Until I hear that the followers of Jane Addams find 1910-era tenement-level overcrowding in the United States, I argue that governments should abolish their overcrowding laws. The easy potential for abuse of such laws ("public choice" theory meets the Fair Housing Act) overshadows, in my view, any occasional benefit.
Thursday, May 25, 2006
The latest in the Wal-Mart Wars: A big story this week was the vote of Hercules, a small and tony suburb northeast of San Francisco, to use eminent domain to take land on which Wal-Mart planned to build a store. While only the most strident property rights advocates shed a tear for Wal-Mart, who will be compensated, this use of eminent domain provides a good chance to tee off against government with both rightist and leftist critiques.
First, although this use of eminent domain would seem to fit with Kelo's approval of "government knows best" what's good for the town, what about an analogy to "spot zoning"? The idea in zoning is that law should treat similar spots similarly, and that government shouldn't single out a single "spot" or landowner for special zoning. If we applied a like idea to the use of eminent domain, it might be acceptable to use the power for a certain category of land -- "blight" is the most common example, of course -- but not simply because the government doesn't like a particular landowner or its proposed use of land.
From a leftist angle, an interesting story in San Francisco's alternative paper, SFGate, points out that local opponents argued that the store wouldn't fit in with the wealthy ambience of the town and thus isn't desired. The point that the Wal-Mart might serve the needs of residents of less-affluent neighboring towns didn't make an impression, of course, on the Hercules council. So, isn't this simply a Mt. Laurel situation, with shampoo replacing housing: An affluent suburb uses it land use power to stifle market demand by the less affluent in the area? Should California law require, as New Jersey did with housing, exclusive towns to consider the market demands of the less affluent?
Tuesday, May 23, 2006
NPR reported two interesting stories this morning about controversies on the edges of land use law. The first report was about renewed plans to squeeze oil out of shale in the deserts of Utah, made economically feasible once again with high oil prices. Environmentalists deplore the prospect of the destructive mining, pollution, and water use that oil shale mining would bring. As someone who loves the solitudes of Utah's deserts, I too would not be happy over large-scale oil shale business there. But after the public uproar over high gas prices this year, is there any doubt that the majority of Americans prefer cheap gasoline to pristine deserts?
The second story concerned a recent decision of a British court in favor of the Chagossians, the native people of the Indian Ocean's Diego Garcia, who were expelled from the British-owned island in the the 1970s so that the United States could build a military base in the strategic location. The British government acted with cavalier disregard in kicking out the Chagossians, many now argue. Although the D.C. Circuit recently held that the U.S. government's actions were political questions and that the U.S. government owes the people no compensation, British courts are turning in the other direction. Thus the complaints of undue power and racism in eminent domain reach a global level …
Monday, May 22, 2006
The greatest debate in American land use history concerns the 20th century practice of zoning. For some, the chief effect of zoning has been what governments and the Euclid decision said -- the furthering of the general public welfare by separating incompatible uses and shaping growth to serve public goals. For critics, the chief effect of zoning has been to assist certain private interests -- influential ones, of course -- to exclude uses and people that these interests do not want around.
A snippet of history in support of the skeptical view is found in John's Tauranac's history of the creation of New York's Empire State Building, which I'm reading in honor of the famous office tower's 75th birthday. Many people are familiar with the role that downtown Manhattan's Equitable Life building, which rose a shocking 38 stories straight up and above the narrow streets in 1915, played in encouraged New York City to adopt a zoning law. But if height, bulk, and shadows were bothering people downtown, other interests were at work in midtown. The booming garment manufacturing industry -- mostly small firms of Jewish immigrants from eastern Europe -- was spreading toward fashionable midtown Fifth Avenue. Alarmed, a group of wealthy retailers pushed to zone the garment manufacturers away from Fifth Avenue. The New York Times opined on Oct. 2, 1916, that the "invasion of unsuitable trades, bringing throngs of workers who would monopolize the sidewalks and repel fashionable shoppers, was undesirable." New York City adopted its first zoning law that year.
Sunday, May 21, 2006
It's happening all over the world -- While environmentalists implore third world nations to preserve their natural resources, governments and local residents see quick profits from using the land to extract minerals, timber, and water, and start up intensive agriculture.
The Washington Post today prints an fascinating piece about the Papuan region of Indonesia, where the government has shut down the logging of tropical forests. The story is not simply good versus evil. On the one hand, local farmers have for centuries cut down some trees for subsistence and today complain of lost income; on the other hand, much of the recent logging has been done for international timber operations that illegally ship the wood out of the country. Matters are further muddled by changing national policies and conflicts between national and regional authorities. And the environmentalists' preferred win-win solution of ecotourism is not likely to help the Papuans ...