Friday, March 30, 2007
By the time that Will Rogers joked in the 1930s that America was the first nation ever to go to the poorhouse in an automobile (imagine!), it was clear that Americans had special relationships with their vehicles. Americans eat, sleep and beget children in their cars, and no amount of environmental shame or new urbanist design is going to change the habits of millions of Americans who seem to love their cars and trucks.
One sour manifestation of this love is the practice of idling –- trucks and buses that run their engines while the driver is waiting, dozing, or doing who-knows-what. Idling trucks and buses are not only an aural nuisance; constant and concentrated exhaust can cause health hazards. This is especially of concern for people who live near places where trucks and buses often idle.
Responding to complaints from a residential neighborhood near a truck business in Allentown, Pa., a Pennsylvania legislator has introduced a bill to limit trucks to idling for a maximum of five minutes in most instances. We can cheer this legislation as a blow for the rights of citizens against those who abuse their privilege to drive and impose burdens on others’ enjoyment of their property.
But we should also be aware of the limits of land use laws such as these. What are the chances that such a law would be enforced in any effective way? It might be effective in stopping unlawful idling at the notorious spot in Allentown, but it would be unlikely to be at the top of police priorities in most places. Just as laws against littering do little to protect our sidewalks and streets from garbage, we probably shouldn’t expect too much from laws against idling. In some countries of the world, it is impossible to get effective enforcement of most land use laws. Even in the United States, law has its limits.
Thursday, March 29, 2007
In my property law class this week, we talked about a famous case in which the affluent suburb of Ladue, Mo. (which has been involved in more famous land use litigation that any suburb its size) told a property owner in the late 1960s that he couldn’t build his planned “modern” home because it didn’t fit with the traditional architecture of Ladue. I chastised the decision and suggested that city officials probably thought that the house would have fit in a place such as wild and free Los Angeles, but not in conservative Ladue.
I spoke too soon. The current Economist magazine reports about a boom in the City of Angels of gaudy houses in non-traditional architectural styles, especially among the city’s large class of wealthy immigrants (more than 40 percent of new homes in the U.S. have four or more bedrooms today –- twice the percentage in 1985 –- which the report attributes in part to immigrant families). There is a move to stop the construction of large, ostentatious "Persian Palaces." One proposal is to decrease by half the square footage permitted for houses on certain size lots. Why is it, I ask, that house of a certain size that was acceptable 20 years ago is today considered far too large?
I also am very skeptical of land use “stylistic” laws, such as those that exist in snooty L.A. area cities such as San Marino and Beverly Hills. Most great architectural developments, from St. Peter’s to the Eiffel Tower to the Robie House to the Guggenheim Bilbao, were derided by advocates of more traditional styles. I don’t trust government to decide taste. (The Economist quotes one owner as stating that if he wanted "mullahs" to tell him what to do, he could have stayed in Iran!) And I agree with the U.S. Supreme Court, in another famous case involving Ladue, that a “special respect for individual liberty in the home has long been part of culture and our law.” City of Ladue v. Gilleo, 512 U.S. 43, 58 (1994) (striking down a no-signs-on-lawns ordinance). People should be able to build in the architectural style they prefer, even at the risk of decreasing neighboring property values (if it does so too much, let the neighbors sue for a “visual nuisance”).
Wednesday, March 28, 2007
Sometimes society needs a major embarrassment to whip it into shape. After the debacle of the 2000 election, for example, an entire generation of Americans presumably will do a better job of checking their voting ballots before turning them in. And the current mortgage foreclosure explosion should sober up the next generation of Americans about the risks of overextending themselves with mortgage debt.
Last week I wrote to criticize lenders and to suggest a tightening our lending disclosure laws. Today I write to suggest that a large share of the blame for the boom in foreclosures is attributable to borrowers who simply shouldn’t have taken the loans. As reported in today’s New York Times and in a spate of other stories from around the nation, too many Americans have taken on mortgage loans that they knew, or should have known, were going to gobble up far more than half of –- and sometimes more than –- their monthly income. Many of them are now losing their homes because they cannot pay back their enormous debt.
Avuncular economists might say that these stories should be a lesson for American borrowers, and I have to agree. Too many citizens appear not to have thought long enough about what they were agreeing to. When I first considered buying a house, my father told me an old rule of thumb that one could afford a house only if it cost no more than 2 and ½ times one’s annual income. This may be overly restrictive today, but any sensible person should realize that agreeing to spend more than half of one’s income on mortgage payments is a dangerous practice.
Perhaps law should reinforce today’s cautionary tales by requiring greater emphasis on teaching personal finance in the public schools (especially as many of the overextended borrowers appear to be immigrants and those raised outside of the mainstream American culture, where rules of thumb are taught). We should educate young people that the marketed dream of “Buy now, worry later!” is irresponsible. To have many Americans fooled once might be considered a problem of personal failings; for it to happen repeatedly would be a national shame …
Monday, March 26, 2007
One consequence of Houston's famous lack of comprehensive zoning may be that Houston holds one of the nation's highest percentage of rental units (only 46 % of Houston's households own). I suspect that this is because it is easier and quicker for developers to build apartment buildings in Houston.
Houstonians have consistently rejected proposals to introduce comprehensive zoning -- another example of Americans' preference for the status quo in their communities. But there is a growing call to do something to stop large new apartment construction in Houston. I'd be sad to see the change made, if only that the large number of apartments in Houston (unlike in its suburbs) shows what the future of American cities will be like (and the large number of apartments provided welcome homes for Katrina refuges in 2005), and because the relatively low cost of rental units Houston is attributable in large part to the lack of restrictive zoning laws.