Thursday, June 28, 2007
Are oppressive governmental land use laws to blame for the loss of so many homes to the big fire south of Lake Tahoe, Cal?
Few places in the United States have seen as much contention and litigation over environmentally spurred land use laws as the Lake Tahoe area, which combines a perfect mix of a great demand for beautiful and expensive real estate, a state with exacting environmental and wildlife laws, and a climate and geography that regularly generates both avalanches and mudslides in wet winter and fires in dry summer.
Some residents who recently lost their homes blame the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency, which they see as protecting trees at the expense of homes. The agency defends by saying that its rules are not as restrictive as some believe. As in many places in the West, the agency is still behind in plans to conduct prescribed burns, to make up for decades of excessive fire suppression, which has lead to too much small brush. Moreover, would these residents truly wish to live in area in which most of the trees of their neighbors had been chopped down to avoid fire hazards? Many a landowner wants to limits his or her neighbor's rights but at the same time wants to be allowed greater personal freedom to cut wood that threatens his or her house. And they are not placated by the environmentalist argument that maybe people shouldn't be living permanently in such a volatile area in the first place ….
Tuesday, June 26, 2007
So, you like "in theory" the idea of greater density of American housing development, but you're not exactly ready to buy into the extreme notion of abandoning the suburban ideal for a world in which everyone lives in high-rises and takes trams to work. What's a good place to start in changing the zoning laws of your community?
One way might be to allow accessory units in suburban neighborhoods. Not usually the "granny flats" that advocates often like to call them, such accessory units can be a second housing unit in a suburban lot -- a basement apartment, a second story unit above the garage, or even a small studio with bath in the backyard. The great benefits of such accessory housing are that it creates low-cost housing in areas that otherwise would financially exclude many citizens (especially young singles or the low-income elderly) and it makes the main house more affordable for more families. Here's an intelligent essay in the Rocky Mountain News, where Denver is reconsidering its zoning laws.
Some of the usual suburban objections to accessory housing can be addressed by changing the details of zoning laws, such as by prohibiting accessory separate units from being built right up against the neighbor's property. But the biggest objection -- although one might not hear it explicitly voiced very often -- is that it brings the wrong "type" of people into the suburban neighborhood.
Now, this isn't a reason to avoid supporting this first step toward greater density, is it?
Friday, June 22, 2007
A federal judge issued a preliminary injunction this week against a Texas city ordinance that made it unlawful to rent housing to illegal immigrants. The court decision probably will work to discourage the on-again, off-again efforts of local governments to strike blows, through land use laws, mostly symbolic but potentially dangerous, against illegal immigration. If the ordinance dies, I won't mourn its passing.
The court's ruling was based in large part on separation of powers concerns, in that the ordinance of Farmers Branch, Texas, appeared to define a person as an illegal immigrant in a manner that was somewhat different from federal immigration law. Because only Congress can regulate immigration, the argument goes, the town usurped uniquely federal law. This argument leaves open the possibility that a better-worded law could pass muster under the separation of powers inquiry.
Of greater interest to me is how such sporadic local housing laws would affect land use and the movement of illegal immigrants in the United States. If enforced, such laws probably would have little effect on the overall level of immigration (they probably would have no greater effect than have the federal employment laws, which were designed to discourage immigration but have largely failed to do so). But the local laws might make life somewhat more difficult for existing immigrants - both legal and illegal. Poor immigrants would probably end up living further from their jobs, creating transportation difficulties, or living illegally in hovels and under assumed names. Towns might be encouraged by a vicious circle to try to push immigrants to their neighbors. There might be a few "winners" from these effects, but the nation as a whole, including the average of American citizen, would not be among them.
And of course perhaps the most significant effect would be that persons of Hispanic heritage, or anybody with an accent, might find it difficult to secure rental housing. Many landlords, especially of low-cost housing, would avoid the risk of fines or other punishment by refusing to rent to odd-talking persons, regardless of what papers the prospective renter can show the landlord. A fairly certain indirect effect of local laws on renting to illegal immigrants, therefore, would be to generate large amounts of housing discrimination on the basis of race and national origin.
Tuesday, June 19, 2007
Which level of government should hold the authority to regulate rail shipments of hazardous waste –- local governments or the federal government (or both)? There are lawsuits pending over local government regulation of rail transport in this age of fear of terrorism.
There is no doubt that local governments feel most intensely the concern over the risk that a terrorist might seek to attack a train carrying hazardous chemicals, with potentially catastrophic consequences. But a carte blanche to regulate hazardous interstate rail traffic would also give state and local governments a tempting opportunity for local protectionism. If, to choose a random example, St. Louis decided that there was no economic benefit to accepting such shipments through the city, it might then rationally decide to ban them –- with the chief result being that more hazardous shipments are sent through Memphis, which then is encouraged to send them through Vicksburg. The “Protectionist Presumption” states that we should assume that a local government will be motivated, at least in part, by a desire to protect itself at the expense of its neighbors.
The best solution, therefore, would be for the federal government to address the issue on a “level playing field,” by imposing safety precautions and deciding which routes should be avoided, balancing risks with benefits, on the basis of the overall national interest. Just as it has done with the decision to store nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain, Nevada, right?
Thursday, June 14, 2007
Is it hypocritical for an advocate of pro-urbanist land use laws to live in a big house in the suburbs? The L.A. Weekly recently ran a David Zahinser story entitled, "Do as We Say, Not as We Do," pointing out that many advocates of housing density and opponents of sprawl live in low-density neighborhoods far from the city center. This criticism is similar to the carping against Al Gore for his energy-gulping mansion in Tennessee. Are they being hypocritical?
The answer depends on what kind of "urbanism" is being advocated. If a commentator asserts that suburbs are in effect "immoral" (as many academicians do) because they damage the environment and discourage social integration, it does seem rather hypocritical to follow a lifestyle that one chastises -- like a prohibitionist who's caught driving drunk.
But there are other types of urbanist advocacy that doesn't rise to the level of asserting the immorality of suburbs. Some urbanists contend simply that our laws shouldn't make city-living difficult and shouldn't subsidize suburban development, as of course our laws have done for years, through low-density zoning, mortgage interest deductions, and other policies. Other urbanists might defend their suburban lifestyle with an argument like that of the basketball coach who opposes the three-point shot but nonetheless encourages her players to take the long shots: One takes advantage of the "rules" until they change. A urban advocate can justify a home in the suburbs by saying that he'll move to the city as soon as our policies make downtown Los Angeles as appealing as downtown San Francisco. Another variant of this defense is the "Versailles" justification -- one can support policies that encourage American metro areas to be as dense as Paris, but allow (as they must) the very rich to enjoy life in a large suburban chateau, without being hypocritical (wealth always allows some people to do things that the majority can't afford).
But one lesson is clear from the suburbanite urbanist phenomenon: It is obtuse is best, and disingenuous at worst, to deny the appeal to many, many families of a house in the suburbs. It's not just policy that encourages sprawl; it's the desire for a lifestyle that's been appealing since Louis XIV.
Wednesday, June 13, 2007
What forces push people to super-commutes -- daily auto commutes of two hours or more -- a category that seems to be on the rise, despite gas pressures and land use laws to discourage such super-sprawl?
There are a number of factors. Cheaper housing costs certainly is one. The quest for "better" schools (I'll let you fill in what this means) is another. The growth of two-career couples often leads to working in different towns, necessitating that one or both workers making a super-commute. And there remains the 20th century American ideal, no matter how often it is criticized by environmentalists and urbanists, that highway travel and gas usage are essentially unlimited resources -- or, perhaps, resources that are limited only by the patience of the driver.
An interesting story by Michael Leahy of the Washington Post explores the incentives, and drawbacks, to super-commutes. The long commuters don't necessarily think that they are enjoying a better "quality of life." Nor are they doing it solely "for the kids" -- a phrase one used to hear a lot about moves away from one's job. If any single factor seems prominent, it's one of the oldest and most venerable (despite high gas prices and warnings of global climate change) -- the desire for a big house for less money, regardless of the hassles (and harms) that it creates. This phenomenon is a lesson that will complicate land use laws that encourage high-density living, for years to come …
Thursday, June 7, 2007
What’s the effect of rent control laws? In post-Reagan America, the most common response might be: It constricts the supply the low-cost housing and causes a deterioration in the quality of the same, as landlords avoid money-losing rentals.
But a chief purpose of rent control is to provide “housing security,” according to Barnard’s Greg Smithsimon, in an essay on Planetizen. While economists may fret about the long-term effects of restricting the price of a valuable service, a short-term effect of rent control, the argument goes, is that renters aren’t forced out of their apartments during housing price spikes, such as the bubble that many high-priced American cities have experienced in the past decade. In New York, where inflation has pulled many units of out rent control, new Governor Eliot Spitzer wants to raise the rent control ceiling to cover units costing more than $2000 (an amount that seemed like a “luxury” rate 10 years ago, but not today).
It’s true that rent control provides at least short-term housing security. And it’s also true that the days of envy-creating “subsidies” to long-term renters in Manhattan or Cambridge are mostly a thing of the past, thanks to reforms of the rent control laws. But the goal of policy makers should be to ask: Do the benefits of housing stability outweigh the unwanted incentives of rent control? Economists may scratch their heads over the concept of the “benefits” of housing stability, and but it’s the question that a good policy maker should have to answer …
Tuesday, June 5, 2007
Which American retail business engenders the most land use opposition -- other than Wal-Mart, of course? It might be Hooters restaurant, which opened yesterday in Spartanburg, S.C., after a series of legal battles. According to the story in the Spartanburg Herald-Journal, the opening appeared to have been a success.
The legal squabbles illuminate some odd features of land use law. First, the city recently annexed the land on which the Hooters sits, in order to provide the restaurant with the advantages of Spartanburg's loose Sunday liquor policies. It makes little sense, of course, to have adjoining urban municipalities hold differing liquor laws. And of course the opening was delayed by a challenge to the granting of a liquor license, by a local official who felt that the Hooters was planned for a location -- near a local shopping mall -- that was inappropriate for a burger and barbeque joint that advertises scantily clad waitresses. I'd scoff at such a challenge, if the opening day of the Hooters didn't feature a 16-year-old's birthday party …