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Monday, March 13, 2006

NY Times on Glaeser

I'm about a week behind on this one, but wanted to highlight a couple of things from the NY Times Magazine's story on Harvard Econ Prof Edward L. Glaeser.  Glaeser is the author of a recent study that asserts that zoning has contributed to high housing prices in the Boston area.

So, after sorting through a mountain of data, Glaeser decided that the housing crisis was man-made. The region's zoning regulations — which were enacted by locales in the first half of the 20th century to separate residential land from commercial and industrial land and which generally promoted the orderly growth of suburbs — had become so various and complex in the second half of the 20th century that they were limiting growth. Land-use rules of the 1920's were meant to assure homeowners that their neighbors wouldn't raise hogs in their backyards, throw up a shack on a sliver of land nearby or build a factory next door, but the zoning rules of the 1970's and 1980's were different in nature and effect. Regulations in Glaeser's new hometown of Weston, for instance, made extremely large lot sizes mandatory in some neighborhoods and placed high environmental hurdles (some reasonable, others not, in Glaeser's view) in front of developers. Other towns passed ordinances governing sidewalks, street widths, the shape of lots, septic lines and so on — all with the result, in Glaeser's analysis, of curtailing the supply of housing. The same phenomenon, he says, has inflated prices in metro areas all along the East and West Coasts.

The whole article is worth reading, but this passage on Glaeser's newest project struck me as particularly interesting and as something property professors might have some thoughts on:

He and Gyourko say they know that the country's regulatory environment, and thus the supply of housing, began to change around 1975. But they don't know why it changed. So along with a third researcher, Raven Saks, they have begun to track building permits from hundreds of cities around the country over the past four decades to investigate the nature of the evolution. Glaeser speculates that there may be a viral phenomenon whereby once housing prices reach a certain level, residents become aware of high home values and agitate for restrictions; another possibility is that judges have become much more sympathetic to blocking development for environmental reasons. Still another thought: that homeowners, utilizing skills learned during the civil rights movement and political protests of the 1960's and 1970's, became much more adept at organizing against developers. (There appears to be a reasonable correlation between liberal enclaves, zoning regulations and high housing prices.) In any event, Glaeser says, he doesn't know the answer yet, and it may take years to find out.

I'll be interested in seeing what he comes up with.

Ben Barros

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