Thursday, July 6, 2006

Backyard apartments: Low-cost housing or flying beer bottles? ...

   Ever since the invention of land use zoning, affluent governments have used the power to discourage the migration of the poor and those who would generate government expenditures, under the cover of serving the “public welfare.”  In the famous 1926 Euclid decision, of course, the U.S. Supreme Court approved of the practice of discriminating against the “parasites” of apartment buildings.  In recent years, critics have revived the once-dormant criticism of the exclusionary effects of such zoning (the lower court in Euclid had struck down the zoning at issue in part because of its effect in segregating people by wealth), but, at the same time, local governments are becoming more sophisticated in their pursuit of maximizing the welfare of their homeowners, regardless of the costs to others.

   How have local governments responded to the low-cost housing crunch of this decade?  In the case of Seattle, the city government is considering an "experiment" to allow for a backyard apartment in one section of the city, most of which is zoned, of course, for single-family houses only.  A leading opponent quoted in the Seattle Times predicts "flying beer bottles" and excessive noise from such apartments (I didn't know that Justice Sutherland was still alive!) and others fear -- oh horror! -- the duplex-ization of Seattle.  Although the Times uses the real-life example of a homeowner who wants space for her mother, my guess is that a more common use may be for to provide a bed for the homeowner’s nanny or maid.  One doubts that any janitor, fire fighter, or store clerk will be accepted in such apartments; they’ll still have to figure out how to commute from some faraway locality (Spokane?) that provides low-cost housing.

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