Political Animal


March 04, 2013 1:01 PM Is Zoning “Liberal?”

By Ed Kilgore

Nestled in the latest of a long series of Wall Street Journal editorial-page pieces on the socialist dystopia of California which is driving people to such low-tax (and low everything) paradises as Texas and Mississippi is this interesting planted axiom from Allysia Finley:

[Z]oning laws, which liberals favor to control “suburban sprawl,” have constrained California’s housing supply and ratcheted up prices.

I do not know how old Ms. Finley is, but obviously zoning and other land-use restrictions (public and private) existed long before anyone was talking about “suburban sprawl,” and in fact, “sprawl” is arguably more often the result of land-use restrictions than their rationale. And while it’s true a new anti-planning radicalism on the Right (most notably the John Birch Society-inspired “Agenda 21” hysteria) tends to treat any land-use laws or regulations as communistic, well-off suburbanites who vote Republican are, at least in my experience, as least as enthusiastic as “liberals” about “protecting their property investments” via zoning.

Examining the real-life impact of land-use restrictions is actually one of the few areas where there has been for quite some time a productive cross-pollination between liberal and libertarian thinkers. There’s really no unambiguously “good” and “bad” political party or ideological grouping on this subject. What is clear, of course, is that very, very few people to the right of center are at all interested in fair housing laws, low-income housing assistance, or for that matter, any approach to land use that discomfits commercial property owners. The high cost of residential housing in California (and particularly coastal California) has a lot of causes, of which “liberal” policies are not self-evidently prominent. Exchanging California’s public policies for Texas’ will not self-evidently make life easier for low-to-moderate income people, even if you buy the very dubious premise it would create significantly lower real estate prices, for the obvious reason that there are goods and services of equal or greater value than real estate. But it’s like everything else in the conservative case against California: an exercise in single-entry book-keeping in which everything good about the Golden State is ignored, along with everything bad about the Lone Star State and its Deep South cousins, where po’ folk have the heavenly prospect of taking what’s given to them by their betters and not getting uppity about it.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.


  • Darsan54 on March 04, 2013 1:13 PM:

    Is there nothing these's guys won't polarize?!? Since when has it become a liberal/conservative issue not to put a mini-mart next to a single family residence?

  • c u n d gulag on March 04, 2013 1:20 PM:

    Since when is "zoning" some Liberal plot?

    Listen up, rich folks, do you want us riff-raff driving in and out of our McDonalds, if they're built right next to your McMansions?

    Because we'd be glad to be 'movin' on up,' to go and get our horsemeat burger and soy-fry "Happy Meals."

    Jeez, they must be running out of real sh*t to bitch about.
    I'll take that as a positive sign.
    It means they're not bitching about uppity "Blah" folks, Messicans, and people who are too proud about their "gay" status.

  • martin on March 04, 2013 1:28 PM:

    What's the difference between a Libertarian and a Conservative?

    Libertarians want to protect property rights. Conservatives want to protect property values.

  • Patricia Sadowski on March 04, 2013 1:50 PM:

    This is a true.

  • beejeez on March 04, 2013 1:51 PM:

    Yes! Everybody hates California's socialist dystopia so much that home prices there are soaring!

  • Rich on March 04, 2013 2:08 PM:

    The Supreme Court case on which zoning is based happened to have involvced the town next to the one where I grew-up. It was a suburb of Cleveland and it used zoning to separate residential from industrial uses, among other things. I suspect that most WSJ readers wouldn't want to have a factory next door. Except for allowing an oversupply of apartments that has caused some problems over time, it was a well-planned community and the long-time mayor was a "non-partisan", but basically Republican pol.

    Most examples of early planned communities in the Cleveland area were rules by republicans, often for decades.

  • mark D on March 04, 2013 3:24 PM:

    About 40 years ago I met a representative of a group I had thought long extinct--the John Birch Society. Among other nutty ideas, he told me it was perfectly all right for a landowner to dump hazardous chemicals down a sinkhole on his property if he thought that was the best use of it. If it killed his neighbor by poisoning the neighbor's well, that neighbor was free to sue.

  • royalblue_tom on March 04, 2013 3:59 PM:

    Of course zoning is conservative, it's a law brought in to prevent certain types of change. The projection of labeling it liberal is astounding.

    Classic zoning examples include where certain vendors of age appropriate goods can be located in relation to schools and where "certain" houses-of-worship/community-centers can be built in lower Manhattan.

  • Gene O'Grady on March 04, 2013 3:59 PM:

    Don't have a lot of experience with Texas, but driving across it convinced me that flat land extends in all directions from the major cities. Am from California, where in both the San Francisco Bay Area and the Los Angeles basin you have water or big hills/mountains holding you in on every side. That explains a lot of the zoning and other restrictions on building.

    Few people know that my home town of Palo Alto built a huge utility infrastructure in the hills to the west in the 60's, which is basically just sitting there because someone, and the sense in which it was "liberals" is pretty dubious, decided that they didn't want to do suburban developments up there. Impetus may, in fact, have come from very wealthy property owners.

  • rrk1 on March 04, 2013 5:15 PM:

    Opposition to zoning fits nicely with all the other reactionary and revanchist idiocy of the Teahadists. I can remember fifty years ago listening to some old timer rant about how the communists zoning proponents were trying to tell him what he couldn't do with his sacred property - sacred in the sense that he was the sole determiner of its fate while he owned it. In the quite liberal community where I live now there are still are a few like him, his ideological descendants no doubt, who resent the adoption of zoning over forty years ago by a two-thirds town meeting vote.

    The destruction of any and all social progress made during the 20th century seems to be the goal of this angry and bitter crowd, and fortunately they are dying out, but unfortunately not quickly enough.

  • biggerbox on March 04, 2013 8:30 PM:

    Ha! You haven't seen passion around zoning until you've been to the weathly enclaves if Fairfield CountyCT. You think those Masters of the Universe want a subdivision of merely well-to-do living next to their multi-million dollar estates? California is nuthin'!

  • Yellow dog on March 04, 2013 9:28 PM:

    You want heavy-handed government? Look at your typical homeowners' association or condo board. These are private governments of a sort. You move in, you agree to terms that constrict your liberties in every possible way. It is a voluntary agreement, though, so exit is always an option. However, use of power for conservative ends is a tale too often not told.

  • progressive land use on March 07, 2013 12:03 PM:

    The discussion about zoning here is highly theoretical. From the ground here in a part of the Bay Area with high real estate values, here's what the zoning controls are actually doing.

    Zoning defines the maximum density of an area, and keeps the density to protect what people perceive as their quality of life which is neighborhoods of single family houses. When land values are high, there is economic motivation to "build up" but zoning controls prohibit that growth.

    Zoning doesn't just keep residents away from toxic chemicals, which is reasonable. It separates houses from offices and stores, so people need to use a car for most daily trips. It also separates single family homes from apartment buildings, resulting in more economic segregation.

    One reason people fear density is that they see cars as the only form of transportation, so more people is obviously going to result in more traffic, discounting the fact that if people will drive less when they dont' need to drive everywhere.

    These policies aren't "liberal". They are "suburban NIMBY."

    There are people seeking to legalize more density, mixed use, walkability and transit friendliness. To reduce the cost of housing in a high cost area, you need to be able to add supply.

    Then there are "tea party" opponents to these policies who see them as "socialist" and see single family zoning and car-centric land use as libertarian.

    California's Prop 13 property tax regime makes it difficult to add density because property taxes rise too slowly to afford schools for additional residents.

  • John Thacker on March 28, 2013 12:50 PM:

    Actually, academic research has shown that there is a correlation in California between other liberal policies and housing restrictions and zoning.

    You're quite right that there are a lot of wealthy suburban Republicans that support zoning, and interstate differences dwarf partisan differences. But you shouldn't ignore the research.