Matthew Yglesias is baffled by reality. At least, he finds the Antiplanner’s post about how zoning codes actually work, as opposed to how Yglesias imagines they work, to be “baffling and bafflingly long.”
He boils his case down to three simple statements:
- Throughout America there are many regulations that restrict the density of the built environment.
- Were it not for these restrictions, people would build more densely.
- Were the built environment more densely built, the metro areas would be less sprawling.
Reality is never so simple. As you can see, it all depends on statement 1: are there regulations throughout America that restrict density? As evidence that there are, Yglesias cited the Maricopa County Zoning Code, which he claimed allows development no denser than duplexes. Apparently, he didn’t read (or was baffled by) chapter 7, which allows housing at 43 units per acre, or chapter 10, which allows anyone with 160 acres to build as dense as they want.
Sometimes I think I have ADD, as I have a hard time reading long, boring articles. Perhaps Yglesias has the same problem (or my article was especially boring), as he doesn’t seem to have read much of my “bafflingly long” post (he actually refers to this one, not the one on the Antiplanner, but they are substantially the same).
The Antiplanner, he says, “seems to want to engage in a complicated counterfactual hypothetical about whether or not most people would still prefer to live in large single-family homes even in the absence of regulatory restrictions.” Actually, very little of my post was about that: my post showed that the regulatory restrictions he reads into zoning codes actually aren’t restrictive at all, since most cities that don’t engage in growth-management planning are extremely flexible about the use of vacant land. And when I did use counterfactual cases (examples of low-density development even when there are no regulations), they weren’t at all hypothetical.
Yglesias, a philosopher by training, betrays the typical planner’s ignorance of economics when he argues that “the high cost of housing in New York, Boston, Washington, San Francisco, Santa Monica, etc. indicates that thereâ€™s market demand for walkable urbanism.” I suppose he would say that the high cost of the “I Am Rich” iPhone application — a $999.99 app that does nothing but display an image of a red jewel, and which eight people bought before Apple removed it from its app library — proves there is a market demand for expensive, useless things. In other words, we shouldn’t confuse price with demand — demand is a function that considers both price and quantity.
To the extent that there is a market demand for walkable communities, builders will and do meet that demand. Yglesias claims that “classic tall apartment buildings with no attached parking facilities would be totally illegal to build in virtually ever contemporary American city.” But in fact you can find tall apartment buildings, with parking, in every major metropolitan area, regardless of local parking rules (and most parts of Texas, among other places, have none). To me, this shows not that builders are prevented by regulation from meeting the demand for apartment buildings without parking, but that builders know that including parking enhances the value of their buildings even if a few people want to live without cars.
Perhaps the most anti-car city in America, Portland, has spent millions of tax dollars subsidizing construction of parking for developers in supposedly walkable Pearl District and other parts of the city. There is a Whole Foods on the streetcar line, but the fact that the city built Whole Foods a parking garage has more to do with the store’s location than the streetcar. Meanwhile, as faithful Antiplanner ally John Charles has shown, Portland-area transit-oriented developments with limited parking have high vacancies. The lesson is not the regulation requires parking but that developments of almost any kind won’t succeed unless they have sufficient parking.
I don’t know where Yglesias lives now, but part of the problem may be that he has spent most of his life in New York City, Massachusetts, and Washington, DC, three places (including DC suburbs in Virginia and Maryland) that are heavily regulated. If he lived (as Kunstler does, and who therefore should know better) in upstate New York, Kansas, Texas, or any of at least 30 states that do not have growth-management planning, Yglesias would be less quick to assume that zoning codes control development.
Yglesias chastises John Stossel (whose show that inspired this debate was broadcast last night), the Antiplanner, and other free marketeers for implicitly supporting (by not objecting to) the regulations that Yglesias claims prevent builders from meeting the market demand for dense, walkable communities. In fact, I have frequently expressed an eagerness to dispense with all zoning codes and other government land-use regulation, and to rely on deed restrictions and homeowner associations to protect property values in neighborhoods that are already developed.
I have invited smart-growth advocates to join me in a campaign for such deregulation. Other than Andres Duany, most have rejected this invitation, as they want to make land-use rules as restrictive as Yglesias thinks they already are in order to force the dense development they want and prevent the low-density developments that most Americans want (as indicated both by surveys and actual housing choices). Though he states he does not want to “debate the ‘smart growth’ slogan,” by joining with them in claiming that current zoning forces sprawl, Yglesias is helping their cause by ignoring the facts about just how flexible pre-growth-management zoning codes actually are.