Just Admiring the Problem?

Brendon Slotterback issues a “challenge to the market-oriented urbanists”:

Understanding the impacts of restrictive zoning on rents is important. But every time I read one of these change-the-zoning posts, I can’t help feeling that I’m watching the discovery of a concept (densifying urban areas) that smart growth advocates and planning students have known and been advocating for a very long time.  Clarence Perry dreamed up the “Neighborhood Unit” in 1929 in an attempt to address the nation’s rising automobility and associated externalities (the Neighborhood Unit called for at least ten units per acre). There may be more market demand now for dense, transit- (or stuff)-oriented development, but the issues are the same.

More calls for density based on market forces, fine.  But what almost every single one of these articles seems to lack is any robust exploration of how zoning rules are adopted, enforced, and changed and what exactly the author proposes as an alternative.

Two responses. First, it seems to me that Brendon undervalues the importance of providing more information about the nature of the problem. In my experience, the relationship between housing supply and housing costs remains very poorly understood, among the population as a whole and among urbanists. Even among those who appreciate the connection, the costs of supply restrictions are often underestimated. Proposing institutional reforms before convincing people of the need for reform is putting the cart before the horse. We’re engaged in an effort to expand the constituency for reform — to convince more people that this is worth caring about. And by explicitly bringing in the economic costs of zoning restrictions, we hope to attract the attention of groups with the influence to push reform forward, to adopt the cause as their own.

Second, the need to think about institutions is not something that hasn’t occurred to most of us. I think we’ve all been very interested in research by, for example, David Schleicher and Rick Hills delving into the institutional roots of supply restrictions.

But the first point is the key one: you have to convince people to care before you can expect them to move forward on institutional change. Yes, lots of urbanists are reading these ideas and thinking that they’ve been on to these problems for ages. If all it took to begin addressing the problem was to convince urbanists, there’d have been much more building in dense areas long ago.