Tuesday, May 15, 2012
Paul Boudreaux (Stetson)--the original Founding Editor of the Land Use Prof Blog-- has published a book that addresses one of the most critical issues in American land use in the 21st century: The Housing Bias--Rethinking Land Use Laws for a Diverse New America (Palgrave MacMillan, 2011). Here's the SSRN abstract:
As more than 300 million Americans squeeze into our country, and as single-person households now outnumber families of parents and children, it's time to rethink our land use laws that favor the single-family house. Our zoning laws were created in an age that assumed that nearly everyone outside of central cities preferred to live a house separated from neighbors; this assumption is no longer valid and no longer sustainable for a crowded nation. The Housing Bias explores the legal discrimination against apartment buildings and other forms of low-cost residences and how these laws make housing more expensive for modest-income Americans – a key factor in the development of subprime loans and other risky practices that eventually sparked our current economic crisis. Why do our laws prohibit the construction of low-cost housing? It is largely because existing homeowners prefer to exclude them – an astonishing example of law’s granting a legal privilege to wealthier citizens, a privilege that our nation can no longer afford.
This provocative book explores real-world 21st-century controversies of the housing bias. It visits the recent effort of Virginia suburbs to enforce “overcrowding” laws against mostly Latino families who migrated to the area to build new subdivisions, and then moves to New York, where eminent domain is used through a dubious interpretation of law to seize condominiums of middle-class families to build a new pro basketball arena. The book reports on the story of how laws requiring large house lots prevented the construction of a mobile-home community in a growing rural county in southern Michigan, and then examines the failed effort to legalize the widespread phenomenon of small “granny flats” in the backyards of the middle-class homes in the packed city of Los Angeles.
The Housing Bias concludes by exploring how we could update our laws to accommodate the housing needs of a diverse new America, in which half of all households now consist of only one or two persons. The prescriptions range from the complex, such as using state laws to override the power of local homeowners to zone out low-cost housing in certain zones, to the simple, such as facilitating the construction of apartments above suburban malls. It is useful for libraries and for college courses on society or law or for any intelligent reader. Written in an entertaining and jargon-free style, The Housing Bias is essential reading for understanding the flaws and the future of the American community.
One of the great things about land use is that it is fundamentally about places and their stories, and in this book Paul uses these examples to make a larger point about a critical issue of law and policy. The Housing Bias is definitely worth reading and thinking about.
Wednesday, April 18, 2012
Next American City, a planning website with a primarily "New Urbanist" bent, recently launched a new online magazine called "Forefront," which will publish long-form articles on planning issues. The first edition of Forefront features an interesting piece by Josh Stephens, editor of California Planning & Development Report, on the end of redevelopment in California. For those interested, this very blog also devoted some attention to the demise of redevelopment in posts here, here, here and here.
Wednesday, April 11, 2012
My last post discussed some of the backlash against Southern California's new regional plan, which emphasizes high-density transit-oriented development. California Planning & Development Report now provides some of the details of the plan, including:
- a total cost of $524 billion over 20 years
- $6.7 billion in funding for biking and walking
- $246 billion on public transportation
- 80 plus percent of all jobs and housing within a half mile of rail stations or bus stops by 2035
- 68% of all new development would be apartment or condos.
Monday, April 9, 2012
In this Wall Street Journal opinion piece, transportation planner Wendell Cox claims that state and regional planners are driving people out of the state of California with their plans for high-density, transit-oriented development, which he calls a "war" on the single-family home. According to Cox, requiring a change from a primarily single-family suburban to a multi-family urban settlement pattern will make "the state's famously unaffordable housing .. even more unaffordable."
I am at a loss to understand how multi-family housing is going to be more expensive than single-family housing. Cox's claim rests on economic data drawn from William Fischel and others showing that land use regulations in California, such as urban growth boundaries, development moratoria, and so on, generally drive up the cost of housing. This is true, but only because most of these regulations either restrict the overall supply of housing (development moratoria) or force developers to internalize the costs of new growth (exactions). Urban growth boundaries, by contrast, will not necessarily increase housing prices as long as growth is permitted at sufficient densities within the UGB to offset the loss of housing outside the UGB. Yet, Cox places the blame squarely on increasing density!
Furthermore, it is ironic that Cox sees salvation in reverting to the single-family lifestyle, when of course all of the cost-increasing restrictions he now decries, such as moratoria and exactions, have been called into service in order to subsidize single-family homeowners and exclude affordable, multi-family housing.
Friday, April 6, 2012
The food truck wars continue. In this piece on Slate, Matt Yglesias talks about several cities' and states' efforts to ban or regulate food trucks in a way that prevents them from competing with existing restaurants. He cites what he considers a particularly egregious example: a San Francisco ordinance that permits any existing business to comment on an application for a new vending license and directs the city to "consider" whether the new vendor will operate within 300 feet of an existing vendor in deciding whether to grant the license. Yglesias concludes: "a basic rule of thumb seems to suggest itself: The fact that business owners would prefer not to face competition is not a valid regulatory purpose."
This proposition would surely come as a surprise to most land use folks, who generally accept as a matter of course that land use regulations are, at their core, anti-competitive. From large-lot single-family residential zoning that inflates the cost of housing for the benefit of existing homeowners to anti-big-box store laws that are designed to protect quaint mom-and-pop businesses, zoning represents pure economic protectionism. Indeed, the San Francisco ordinance Yglesias mentions is pretty familiar: many zoning laws give neighbors the right to file a protest to a proposed land use change in their neighborhood, which can result in requiring the city to enact the zoning change by a supermajority vote or possibly even block the zoning change (I address the legality of these neighborhood zoning provisions in my article Neighborhood Empowerment and the Future of the City.)
Zoning laws are generally allowed to be anti-competitive because they are thought to be means of combatting free-rider problems. Economists like William Fischel and Bruce Hamilton have argued, for example, that a preponderance of expensive homes on large lots tends to correlate with higher-quality schools. But in the absence of large-lot zoning, people would have strategic incentives to build smaller, less expensive homes in the area just to have access to the better schools. Of course, if too many folks did the same, the very thing that attracted people to the area (the good schools) will be lost as the area becomes congested with smaller homes and more schoolchildren.
Food trucks, it would seem, present an even stronger free-rider problem. Foot traffic is drawn to an area because of the existing shops, restaurants, etc, and the foot traffic in turn generates a demand for more shops, restaurants, etc. Rents and property values go up, as do property taxes, and many high-traffic areas use special assessments or business improvement districts to provide collective sanitation or security services for the area (again overcoming a free-rider problem, as I explain in my Neighborhood Empowerment piece). When a food truck swoops into a high-traffic area, it pays no rent, no property taxes, and no assessments for that privilege, and its lower operating costs enable it to siphon some of that foot-traffic away from existing fixed eateries, thus free-riding on the efforts of those eateries to bring in the foot traffic in the first place. Think of it this way: if the food trucks are sufficiently successful to bankrupt the existing fixed eateries, leaving lots of vacant storefronts in their wake, people will stop coming to the area altogether, and the food trucks will move elsewhere. In other words, the food trucks depend on the existence of fixed eateries to fuel their business. But while fixed eateries pay taxes and fees for the ability to do business in a particular place, food trucks do not. So it should not be a surprise that existing businesses are unhappy.
The solution that suggests itself to me is fairly obvious: since business improvement districts are mechanisms for overcoming free-rider problems, than food trucks should be forced to pay assessments to the business improvement district or special assessment district in those areas where they operate. Legally and conceptually, though, this is difficult to accomplish because special assessments are, as a matter of hornbook law, supposed to be keyed to the benefits that accrue to real property. Because food trucks are not real property, it is difficult to apply the special assessment to them. But wouldn't it be possible for municipalities to use their home rule powers to impose some sort of free-rider fee on food trucks? I would hope that cities and states will consider this alternative rather than simply banning food trucks altogether.
For more on food trucks, see my colleague Ernesto Hernandez-Lopez's piece, LA’s Taco Truck War: How Law Cooks Food Culture Contests.
Thursday, April 5, 2012
A front-page story in today's LA Times throws some cold water on the celebratory mood surrounding the recent sale of the Los Angeles Dodgers and the upcoming 50th anniversary of Dodger Stadium in Chavez Ravine. The story recounts how the city of Los Angeles acquired the land to build the stadium by uprooting (through the use of eminent domain) more than 1,000 mostly Mexican-American families who lived in the area. The story concludes with a chilling quote from one of the uprooted: "There's an old Mexican custom that where you're born, the umbilical cord is buried. Mine's buried under third base....And I hate home runs, 'cause every time they step on third base, my stomach hurts." The story of Chavez Ravine has been well told before, including by my friend Matt Parlow in his article Unintended Consequences: Eminent Domain and Affordable Housing, 46 Santa Clara L. Rev. 841, 843–46 (2006).
Tuesday, February 21, 2012
An interesting local government story from the L.A. Times: East Los Angeles, an unincorporated and predominantly Latino neighborhood of 126,000 in Los Angeles county has had its latest petition to incorporate as a municipality denied by the Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO.)
Unlike many states, which simply permit any unincorporated area to incorporate if it can gather enough signatures for an incorporation petition, California actually requires all proposed municipal boundary changes to be approved by LAFCO, and one of the major factors LAFCO considers is the fiscal viability of the proposed municipality. In this case, the LAFCO concluded that East L.A. lacks sufficient taxable resources to generate sufficient tax revenue to finance the municipal services (fire, police, etc.) that the new city would require.
East L.A.'s situation is interesting for many reasons. For one thing, it highlights what Michelle Anderson has referred to as the problem of municipal "underbounding." Take a look at the map of the Los Angeles basin below:
It's hard to read, but you can see that I have circled East LA in the center of the map. The white portion of the map to the west and north of East LA are all encompassed within the city of Los Angeles. The multi-colored territories to the East and South are other incorporated cities. You can see that aside from a few small "islands" of unincorporated territory, most of the urbanized part of LA county lies within some incorporated municipality. So what happened?
As detailed in Gary Miller's excellent book Cities by Contract, during the 1940s and 50s the two largest cities in LA county, Los Angeles and Long Beach, began aggressively annexing neighboring unincorporated land. Many unincorporated areas were apprehensive because they sensed that annexation was driven by a desire to acquire tax-rich territory so as to redistribute tax revenue from the annexed territory to the annexing municipality. These unincorporated areas could prevent annexation only by incorporating as municipalities themselves, but if they did so, they would then become responsible for financing their own municipal services, a potentially crippling burden. LA county was also worried about the annexations because, as LA and Long Beach grew and swallowed unincorporated areas, they took power away from the county. So the county and the unincorporated areas came up with an ingenious idea called "the Lakewood plan." Under the Lakewood plan, any incorporated municipality could "contract" with the county for the provision of services so as to take advantage of the county's economies of scale in the provision of services while allowing municipalities to retain the powers they really wanted: taxing, zoning, and school control. With the Lakewood plan in place, there was no disincentive for unincorporated areas to incorporate, and they did so with abandon. Today there are 88 incorporated municipalities in LA county.
So why did East LA not incorporate? Frankly, no one wanted to annex poor areas like East LA, so East LA had no reason to incorporate. And, even under the Lakewood plan, incorporated municipalities would still be required to finance their schools out of their own tax base, which is a very significant expenditure for a poor area. The result is that East LA remained unincorporated. So why incorporate now? And why are they being prevented from doing so?
The second question is somewhat easier to answer. After the rash of Lakewood plan incorporations, someone in California state government decided this system of willy-nilly incorporation was crazy, and the LAFCO was formed in order to create a more orderly process of dealing with municipal boundary changes.
Now the harder question: why would east LA want to incorporate in light of the crushing financial burden that would impose? Remember, by remaining unincorporated, East LA receives services from LA county that are highly subsidized by residents of incorporated cities, who are still required to pay property taxes to the county in addition to the fees they pay for the contracted services. Why forego this subsidy and have to pay your own way? Incorporating would give East LA control of its own zoning, schools, and tax base, but with such a minimal tax base they would apparently be better off (and LAFCO certainly thought so) getting their subsidy from the county.
According to the website for the East LA cityhood movement, the goal is the basic one of bringing local government closer to the people. LA county government is the largest local government in the United States, with a population of 10 million, but has only a five-person board of supervisors. If my remedial math serves, that means each supervisor governs roughly 2 million people.
The East LA incorporation drive runs counter to the received wisdom that municipal boundary change follows a kind of "public choice" logic in which the motivation of annexing cities is to loot the tax revenue of unincorporated areas and unincorporated areas are driven by the selfish desire to hoard their stash from being redistributed to the urban masses. Here, it seems, the desire to incorporate stems from a yearning for self-government by a group of people who perceive themselves as a distinct community within the larger city.
Richard Briffault writes that there are two competing conceptions of local government in our political system: the polis and the firm. Local governments are sometimes seen as little democratic republics, and other times as participants in a marketplace. East LA's incorporation petition seems to rest on the former conception of local government -- a city is a forum for enlightened self-government. The reason East LA's petition has been stymied, however, is because LAFCO adheres to the latter conception -- local governments are business organizations. It is telling in this regard that the principal reason LAFCO gives for disapproving the incorporation is that East LA lacks a sufficient number of big-box stores to support an independent city.
Thursday, January 5, 2012
I've been enjoying the outstanding posts on last week's landmark California Supreme Court ruling by Ken Stahl (here and here) and guest-blogger Stephen Miller (here and here) (I smell a great panel or symposium topic in the making). Just now I came a cross an early analysis by Stephen Greenhut at City Journal, the always-interesting center-right urban affairs journal. Greenhut has a strongly positive take on the decision in Crony Capitalism Rebuked California’s supreme court strikes a blow for property rights and fiscal sanity:
On December 29, the California Supreme Court handed down what the state’s urban redevelopment agencies (RDAs) and their supporters called a “worst of all worlds” ruling—first upholding a law that eliminates the agencies, then striking down a second law that would have allowed them to buy their way back into power. This was great news for critics who had spent years calling attention to the ways modern urban-renewal projects distorted city land-use decisions, abused eminent-domain policies, and diverted about 12 percent of the state budget from traditional public services to subsidies for developers, who would build tax-producing shopping centers and other projects sought by city bureaucrats. As of now, the agencies are history, though the redevelopment industry is working to craft new legislation that would resurrect them in some limited form.
January 5, 2012 in California, Caselaw, Constitutional Law, Development, Economic Development, Eminent Domain, Judicial Review, Local Government, Politics, Property Rights, Real Estate Transactions, Redevelopment, State Government | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)
Tuesday, January 3, 2012
I want to be the second to welcome (Matt was first) our new guest-blogger, Stephen Miller. I appreciate Stephen's recent post on the future of redevelopment in California, following my initial post on the subject. I would like to pick up where Stephen left off, highlighting some areas where we agree and disagree.
I take Stephen's main point to be that given the fiscal environment in California (bad), cities desperately need redevelopment, specifically TIF, in order to finance just about any significant development. I agree with that premise, and I'll even add to it. The state of California is notorious for sticking cities with unfunded mandates, the most recent and significant of which is the landmark climate change legislation, SB 375. This legislation requires cities to take steps to address climate change, but doesn't give them any money to do this. And, of course, after Proposition 13, cities don't have any money lying around for this purpose either. Redevelopment seems nicely tailored for SB 375 (as the excellent CP&DR argues) because (a) TIF is one of the few sources of money cities do (or did) have and (b) eminent domain is thought to be an effective tool for "infill development" that can combat sprawl, reduce vehicle miles travelled and, thus, abate climate change. The second point is debatable and I've seen evidence both ways, so I'll leave it for now and focus on the first, which is really the gist of Stephen's post.
In my view, the fact that TIF is one of the few sources of revenue California cities have to address unfunded mandates and/or undertake significant development projects is an indictment of California's present system of municipal finance, not a justification for TIF. It is true that TIF allows cities to assume debt to finance redevelopment, but any type of bonded indebtedness would do the same. What makes TIF different are the following: (1) it is the only type of debt California cities can incur without voter authorization; (2) it directs the incremental tax revenue to the redevelopment district, thus depriving other local governments of their share; and (3) it needs only a flimsy "blight" justification to be used. I elaborated on these latter two points in my previous post. This combination of factors, coupled with Prop 13, practically assures that TIF will be abused. Surely this cannot be the best way to finance needed development in California.
Redevelopment agencies have gotten away with this because TIF rests on two fictions, both of which should be seriously questioned. The first is that a city should not have to share the incremental tax revenue with other jurisdictions because that revenue is all attributable to the redevelopment itself having increasing local property values. This fiction has obviously been proven false by the recent real estate downturn. If redevelopment projects account for all the incremental increase in property values in a given area, can we also blame those projects when property values collapse? The reality is that while improvements are certainly capitalized to some degree in local property values, other factors also affect changes in property value. Thus, when we authorize local governments to use TIF, we are really making a policy decision that local governments should be able to funnel money away from schools, highways, affordable housing, etc and toward redevelopment, that redevelopment is a bigger priority than these other things. California is contemplating a lot of hard choices right now, including releasing scores of inmates from prisons, deeper cuts to public schools, and laying off cops and firefighters. TIF should not be immune from that discussion.
Ths second fiction is this "blight" idea. The focus on blight is a throwback to the era of urban renewal, when it was thought, at least initially, that redevelopment was such a radical tool that it could only be used when a neighborhood was so economically depressed that it could not be saved by conventional means. Blight quickly evolved into rationalization that was used to justify the condemnation of viable but poor areas ("stable, low-rent neighborhoods" in Herbert Gans's formulation,) to turn them into something deemed more desirable (convention centers, stadiums, highways, etc.) Although the failures of urban renewal caused it to be repackaged as "redevelopment," little has really changed. Blight is still a vague, manipulable, and arguably culturally biased standard. States like it, and courts like it, because it gives the appearance that redevelopment actually has some limitations (This may explain some of the outrage over the Kelo decision, which refused to place any substantive limitations on the use of eminent domain). But blight isn't a real limitation.
Even if blight were a meaningful limitation on TIF, it's not the right limitation. If TIF's best use is either to finance development that could not be financed by other means or to implement unfunded mandates like SB 375, then those should be the criteria for its use, not blight. Of course, with any standard there is the danger of it being manipulated. I can just imagine Robert Moses justifying Lincoln Center as "infill development." Hopefully the legislature will think through these issues when it considers whether to revive redevelopment.
Saturday, December 31, 2011
Happy Holidays to all and best wishes for a great new year! I've been on blog hiatus (blogatus? blogcation?) but simply had to report this piece of news. Two days ago the California Supreme Court put a huge lump of coal in the Christmas stocking of California's very naughty redevelopment agencies, issuing an epochal (or perhaps apocalyptic) but not entirely surprising decision that puts an end to redevelopment in the state of California, probably the state where redevelopment has hitherto been most popular. As of 2008, there were 395 redevelopment agencies in California, holding $12.9 billion in assets in 759 redevelopment zones. Now, after the court's ruling, they are all history. The court upheld a state law abolishing all California redevelopment agencies, and struck down a compromise bill that would have permitted redevelopment agencies to stay in business if they shared some of their tax revenue with other local government agencies, mostly school districts. Forlorn city leaders are already predicting all sorts of doomsday scenarios for cash-strapped California cities. Critics of redevelopment such as the Institute for Justice, are, as you can imagine, more pleased with the result. They must take especial delight in knowing, as I explain below, that redevelopment agencies basically brought this plight on themselves. Critics will be less pleased to learn that redevelopment is almost certainly not really dead, and will likely be back in a form hardly less objectionable to its critics than the original. According to this great recap from California Planning & Development Report (an excellent resource, by the way), this lawsuit was never about the merits of redevelopment itself, but was just the beginning of a complex negotiation over who is going to control the prized redevelopment money.
Much more below...
Thursday, December 8, 2011
Last month I posted a rant on Election Day and State Constitutions based on the referendum for new Texas constitutional amendments; Ken Stahl posted a thoughtful response with a qualified defense of direct democracy in ballot-box zoning, which set forth some thoughts that he more fully elaborates in his excellent article The Artifice of Local Growth Politics: At-Large Elections, Ballot-Box Zoning, and Judicial Review.
My complaints--prompted by my frustration with a slate of ten poorly-articulated and confusing process amendments for which the State Legislature required a nominal thumbs-up from the people-- were more focused on (1) statewide (more than with local) lawmaking through referenda; and (2) the over-constitutionalization of public policy in fundamental state law. Troy Senik has written an article for City Journal that articulates some of the points of this (hardly original) critique: Direct Dysfunctionality: California celebrates 100 years of the initiative, referendum, and recall.
Golden State voters can approve or reject public-policy changes at the ballot box through the use of the initiative and referendum. They can also remove unpopular elected officials with the less frequently employed recall, made famous when it chased out Governor Gray Davis in 2003. While nearly half of U.S. states have an initiative process of some kind, nowhere is it as central to the political process as in California, where, in 2010 alone, 14 issues appeared on the ballot. As a result, voters constitute a de facto fourth branch of government. . . .
These measures were introduced in the salad days of the early Progressive movement, when California Governor Hiram Johnson (who would eventually serve as Theodore Roosevelt’s running mate on the Bull Moose presidential ticket of 1912) pressed for their implementation as a firewall against political domination by special interests—particularly those of the well-heeled railroads. . . .
But statewide direct constitution-making has its problems:
Expediting policy shifts, however, is a relatively modest benefit in exchange for the dramatic cost of the initiative process: inducing widespread public-sector sclerosis. Rather than simply providing an outlet for popular grievances, direct democracy actually annexes huge swaths of policymaking from the legislature. When voters mandate a policy directive from the ballot box, the legislature has no way to override the decision, even by supermajority. As a result, any issue that voters weigh in on directly becomes their exclusive purview in perpetuity—amendable or repealable only by another popular vote. This also has the ironic effect of slowing down the democratic process that the initiative system is supposed to make more responsive, ensuring that policy shifts can only come on election days spread years apart. And many of the ballot measures take the form of constitutional amendments, a trend that has given California the unenviable distinction of having the third-longest constitution in the world, after India and (believe it or not) Alabama. Because altering the state’s foundational political charter only requires a simple majority, California ends up inhabiting a bizarro world where it’s relatively easy to amend the constitution but can be nearly impossible to alter basic public policy.
So as with any political process tool, it's a mixed bag with some good things that can be contorted into bad results; my tentative thesis is that direct democracy is less effective the broader the polity (i.e. state vs. local) that engages in it. I know, James Madison and others had something to say about this too.
Soon I'll blog about an interesting local-government direct democracy land use requirement that is a little different from the ones that Ken has written about.
Monday, November 14, 2011
This article from the L.A. Times discusses recent changes to California's stringent environmental review statute (CEQA) that permit the governor to "fast-track" certain development projects through the review process. The merits of CEQA are certainly subject to debate, with business and development groups claiming the law is a job-killer and environmental groups crediting it with preserving important natural resources. I have not read enough to opine on the merits of CEQA, but if there's one thing I do know it's that giving elected officials discretionary authority to decide what gets fast-tracked and what does not is a recipe for trouble. As the article notes ominously, there are already complaints that only politically-connected parties are qualifying for special treatment.
Wednesday, November 9, 2011
OK, I'll bite. Matt has laid down the gauntlet with his criticism of the initiative process. This subject is of great importance to land use profs because, at least in many sunbelt states, a good deal of land use policy is made through direct democracy -- so-called "ballot box zoning." In this post, I want to respond to some of Matt's criticisms and offer a very tentative defense of ballot box zoning. For those who are interested, I have defended ballot box zoning at greater length (although I ultimately call for its abolition anyway) in this paper.
I must first concede to Matt that the initiative process has serious deficiencies. He mentions transparency and voter ignorance. The social science literature confirms that these are major problems. I would also add a few more: the initiative process is often captured by special interest groups, as money and organizational resources are often decisive in initiative contests; the initiative tends to favor the affluent and well educated, which is not surprising since the affluent and well educated are more likely to vote on initiatives; voters are easily confused by deceptive wording on initiatives, and initiative advocates often deliberately use deceptive terms to confuse voters; the initiative process reduces complex issues to a simplistic yes/no dichotomy in which hyperbolic sound bytes replace rational discourse. I suppose I could go on, but you get the point.
So what virtues could the initiative process possibly have? I want to focus specifically on the land use initiative, although some of my comments may be generalizable. Although it is often asserted that local politics are controlled by homeowners who seek to limit or manage growth, that is generally true only in smaller municipalities. Sunbelt states like Texas and California, however, have a disproportionate number of medium to large-size municipalities, dubbed "boomburbs" by sociologists Robert Lang and Jennifer LeFurgy. The larger size of these municipalities gives homeowners less political power. At the same time, sunbelt boomburbs have often pursued headlong development as a means of economic growth and to overcome fiscal constraints imposed by constitutional or political limitations on raising tax revenue. Lang and LeFurgy accordingly assert that these municipalities tend to be in thrall to the "growth machine," a matrix of developers and related cohorts who facilitate urban growth. As I further argue in my paper, the fact that many of these boomburbs use at-large voting structures rather than ward voting systems further enhances the power of developers and dilutes the ability of neighborhood groups to fight development.
Obviously, this system is less than ideal for homeowners. And let's face it: while we might hate those NIMBYs, they have some pretty good reasons for opposing new growth. For years it has been national policy to induce Americans to purchase property through a combination of incentives, including low-interest mortgages and municipal zoning ordinances that provide some assurances to homeowners that their property values, and hence their ability to pay off their mortgages, will be protected against unpredictable declines. New growth and the externalities that accompany it are very likely to diminish property values, and hence prejudice the ability of homeowners to finance what is likely to be by far their most significant asset. Existing homeowners are in effect subsidizing new growth through diminished property values, and although city officials claim that everyone benefits from new growth, it is often a concentrated group of homeowners alone who must bear a disproportionate degree of the cost. As I questioned in a previous post, it can even be argued that homeowners have a regulatory takings claim -- but courts have never recognized such a cause of action.
As envisioned by its Progressive-era architects, the initiative is supposed to correct the defects in the ordinary legislative process, particularly the dominance of special interests. And that is exactly what ballot-box zoning appears to do in the sunbelt states -- the very states where boomburbs, at-large voting and the growth machine dominate the political landscape are also the states where ballot-box zoning is most robust. Ballot box zoning has proven to be a powerful weapon with which homeowners can fight back against the growth machine, because prevailing on a local initiative requires only a one-time infusion of cash and a constituency that is easily organized and highly motivated -- ie, a group of neighboring homeowners who are all extremely ticked off about land use changes around their neighborhood. This can counteract the repeat player and other advantages that the developer has in the legislative process. Granted, the initiative process itself invites special interest abuses and all sorts of other problems, but it seems no less messy or dysfunctional than the system of government it is designed to counterbalance.
Monday, October 3, 2011
Michael Lewis, the author of popular financial nonfiction books such as Liar's Poker, Moneyball, and The Big Short, has published an interesting Vanity Fair article on the looming municipal debt crisis called California and Bust. The intro:
The smart money says the U.S. economy will splinter, with some states thriving, some states not, and all eyes are on California as the nightmare scenario. After a hair-raising visit with former governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who explains why the Golden State has cratered, Michael Lewis goes where the buck literally stops—the local level, where the likes of San Jose mayor Chuck Reed and Vallejo ﬁre chief Paige Meyer are trying to avert even worse catastrophes and rethink what it means to be a society.
While the piece isn't directly about land use, most of us know that land use is fundamentally intertwined with local government finance. The muni debt crisis flows from the real estate bubble, and future land use and development will be driven by the fiscal health of local governments. Also, just about anything by Michael Lewis is worth a read . . . no one else can spin a yarn about the financial world quite like him.
Thursday, September 1, 2011
Driving today I happened upon a radio broadcast of a talk given by Polly Trottenberg, Assistant Secretary for Transportation Policy at US DOT, to the Commonwealth Club of California. Here's a description of her talk from the Commonwealth's web page:
If you have ever been stuck in traffic on the Bay Bridge, late to meetings, or have had a ruined weekend because you couldn’t make it to a destination in time, you know that California suffers from a major transportation infrastructure problem. From pot holes jarring people’s necks and backs, to bridges collapsing nationwide, thousands of commuters are being affected every day by America’s inadequate and faltering transportation infrastructure system. U.S. Department of Transportation Undersecretary for Policy Polly Trottenberg explores solutions to this serious crisis. Trottenberg works toward implementing the president’s priorities for transportation including safety and creating jobs. The DOT employs more than 55,000 employees with a $70 billion budget that oversees air, maritime and surface transportation missions. For 12 years she worked extensively on transportation, public works, energy and environmental issues in the U.S. Senate, for Senators Barbara Boxer, Charles Schumer and Daniel Patrick Moynahan.
Her talk doesn't focus only on California - I tuned in during the question and answer session, when she took a broad range of questions on high speed rail, TIGER grants, freight movement, transportation safety, and other topics. You can download the podcast here.
Jamie Baker Roskie
Tuesday, August 2, 2011
I recently read this article in the San Francisco Chronicle and found it interesting at several levels. It's not often you see a jurisdiction reviewing its long term planning, and even less often you see a newspaper covering that review. The report itself is also pretty fascinating - I lived in the SF Bay Area when the plan was drafted (although I was a freshman in college and not much interested in planning) so I've seen how things have changed. For example, here's an interesting point:
Planners in 1985 couldn't foresee the effect computer technology would have on everything from the printing industry to low-level office jobs now more likely to be found in Asia than on Howard Street. E-mail didn't exist. Reverse commuting to the Silicon Valley or the East Bay was an oddity, not a trend.
The full report is available on the SF Planning department's website.
Jamie Baker Roskie
Monday, August 1, 2011
Just as summer semester was ending for me, there was a media frenzy in Southern California about a scheduled 53 hour closing of the I-405 freeway. The closure earned the nickname "Carmaggedon" and, like so many media-hyped doomsday-type events, it turned out to be much ado about not much.
For the record, traffic fell to 65 percent below its usual volume on LA’s freeways as many people wisely passed a summer weekend close to home or took advantage of the free transit available in many parts of the city, and the road itself opened 17 hours early. The only remarkable story was the one where a handful of cyclists and transit users raced the JetBlue passengers across the city. The riders of bikes and subway trains won handily, reaching the finish line before the Burbank-to-Long-Beach flight had even touched down and setting the intertubes all a-Twitter with their apocalypse-defying exploits.
There are lots of potential take-aways from this non-event, from the obvious benefits of relying less on our cars to the potential fun in pitting bikes against planes in all kinds of races. It seems as if, hype aside, good planning and an effective public education campaign helped avert a lot of traffic-related suffering. It's good to remember the benefits of cooperation, given the news coming out of Washington lately...Maybe we should let traffic engineers solve the budget crisis.
Jamie Baker Roskie
Monday, July 11, 2011
In a kind of ultimate "not in my backyard" move, the City of Beverly Hills is setting aside $350,000 to fight the LA Metropolitan Transit Agency's attempt to run the subway under Beverly Hills High...
Jamie Baker Roskie
Monday, June 27, 2011
Kenneth Stahl (Chapman)--former Land Use Prof guest blogger--has posted All Power to the Neighborhoods?: The Delegation Doctrine and Neighborhood Control of Zoning. The abstract:
Whether cities should delegate some of their zoning power to neighborhood groups is one of the most hotly contested issues in municipal politics, yet it is also essentially a moot point. Since a bizarre series of Supreme Court cases in the early twentieth century, it has been largely settled that cities may not constitutionally delegate the zoning power to sub-municipal groups, at least where the power is delegated specifically to landowners in a certain proximity to a proposed land use change.
This article argues that the judicial prohibition on delegating zoning power to proximate landowners – a scheme I designate a “neighborhood zoning district” – is doctrinally illogical and indefensible as a matter of public policy. As a doctrinal matter, the cases barring the neighborhood zoning district are at odds with another line of cases in which courts have upheld municipal schemes that empower landowners within a territorial area to authorize the financing of services or improvements through a mandatory assessment, known as a “special assessment district,” or in its modern incarnation as a “business improvement district.” As I argue, neighborhood zoning districts are conceptually identical to special assessment districts. Both restrict the franchise to individuals deemed to have a particularly substantial interest based on land ownership in proximity to a proposed change in the character of the neighborhood. As such, both devices offer landowners the ability to efficiently manage local externalities and enable large, diverse cities to effectively compete with small, homogenous suburbs by mimicking the most attractive features of suburban government. The article attempts to reconcile the two doctrinal lines on several policy grounds, but finds that, in many cases, neighborhood zoning districts actually represent sounder public policy than special assessment districts. The article concludes that courts should broadly defer to municipal delegations of power to sublocal groups, so that cities can work out their own desired relationship between neighborhoods and city hall, and their own strategy for surviving in an era of intense inter-local competition.
This is a fascinating paper that really goes to the heart of some of the major questions about which level of government is best positioned to regulate land use. I saw Ken present some of these ideas at ALPS (before we played hooky at the National Building Museum) and the article's well worth reading.
Monday, March 14, 2011
The news seems to get worse from Japan as the Death Toll Estimate Soars. But it's still true that things could have been even worse if it had not been for Japan's careful land and development planning. As James Glanz and Norimitsu Onishi reported in the New York Times, Japan's Strict Building Codes Saved Lives. From the article:
Hidden inside the skeletons of high-rise towers, extra steel bracing, giant rubber pads and embedded hydraulic shock absorbers make modern Japanese buildings among the sturdiest in the world during a major earthquake. . . .
Unlike Haiti, where shoddy construction vastly increased the death toll last year, or China, where failure to follow construction codes worsened the death toll in the devastating 2008 Sichuan earthquake, Japan enforces some of the world’s most stringent building codes. Japanese buildings tend to be much stiffer and stouter than similar structures in earthquake-prone areas in California as well, said Mr. Moehle, the Berkeley engineer: Japan’s building code allows for roughly half as much sway back and forth at the top of a high rise during a major quake.
So it's sad to contemplate but still probably true that the destruction and loss of life could have been much worse if not for the regulations. Of course, these building codes have made development much more expensive; but the article goes on to note an interest twist in how this has played in the marketplace:
New apartment and office developments in Japan flaunt their seismic resistance as a marketing technique, a fact that has accelerated the use of the latest technologies, said Ronald O. Hamburger, a structural engineer in the civil engineering society and Simpson Gumpertz & Heger, a San Francisco engineering firm.
“You can increase the rents by providing a sort of warranty — ‘If you locate here you’ll be safe,’ ” Mr. Hamburger said.
In the meantime, it's a terrible disaster and we wish the best to the rescue and recovery efforts. Thanks to James McKechnie for the pointer.