How Zoning Affects Your Home, Your City, and Your Life (a book review)

As you drive, walk, or bike around your city, what do you think about as you see the various buildings and other structures? Perhaps you think about the lives of the people in them, or the architecture of the buildings themselves, or the products and services that the businesses offer for sale. For me, lately I’ve been thinking about one thing as I make my way around town: zoning. It’s not something I had thought about before very much, but after reading Nolan Gray’s new book Arbitrary Lines: How Zoning Broke the American City and How to Fix It, I’ve been thinking about zoning a lot more.

(Disclosure: I know the author of the book, but I paid for my own copy and got it in advance through the luck of the Amazon-pre-order draw.)

The book does a wonderful job of explaining what zoning is (and importantly, also what it is not), where zoning comes from historically (it’s a development of the early 20th century), and how zoning affects our cities. I really like the way that the book encourages the reader to be a part of the story of zoning. In Chapter 2, Gray encourages you to put down the book and locate your city’s zoning map to learn more about how zoning impacts your life.

I immediately did so and had no trouble finding zoning maps for the city I live in, Conway, Arkansas. Conveniently, my city provides both a simple PDF map and an interactive map, which provides a lot more detail. The interactive map even has embedded links with historical information on different pieces of property. For example, I found the ordinance for when my college, the University of Central Arkansas (previously Arkansas State Teachers College), was annexed by the City in 1958. Pretty cool!

Looking over the map, it’s pretty clear that most of the city that I live in is covered by R-1 and R-2 zoning. But what exactly do these designations mean? You can probably guess that “R” designates residential, but what does it proscribe about land use?

For that, you must dig into the zoning ordinances. And as Gray cautions in the book (somewhat tongue-in-cheek), you might not want to get in too deep with your zoning ordinances, since they can run hundreds or thousands of pages. But I was brave enough to do so, and located my zoning code online (the PDF runs a modest 253 pages).

What did I learn about the zoning that covers my city?

The most common type of zoning in Conway, R-1 zoning, is called a “one-family residential district.” R-2 less common than R-1 in Conway, and it is labeled “low density residential district.” You can see from the names of these districts what they are designed to do: only permit a certain type of housing (single-family homes) and to maintain low density (that phrase also appears in the description of R-1). By law, most of my city must be low-density, single-family homes.

In this respect, Conway is not unique at all. It’s challenging to give exact numbers, but researchers have estimated that cities as varied as LA, Portland, Seattle, Charlotte, and Arlington (VA) have between 75% and 90% of the land designated as single-family zoning. San Jose is over 90%. Not all major cities are like this, with NYC being a notable outlier at only 15%. But NYC is the exception. I would guess that Conway, Arkansas is somewhere around 50% (we still have a lot of outlying land zoned as agricultural, plus three decent-sized universities in town taking up a bit of space).

Further looking into my zoning code, I learn that R-1 zoning (the most common) prescribes some very specific things about the houses and the land that they sit on. Lots must be a minimum of 6,000 square feet, and the maximum coverage of the lot by buildings and structures is 40%. In other words, you’ve got to have a big lawn. I also do see that these two rules were recently relaxed in 2017, from a prior 7,500 square foot minimum and 30% maximum coverage, allowing just slightly more density. For the home itself, R-1 only allows a maximum heigh of 35 feet and 2.5 stories.

Again, none of this is to pick on my city. These requirements are pretty typical, as Gray demonstrates in the book.

But what are the effects of all these very precise specifications on what homes and the land they sit on must look like? Last summer I wrote a blog post summarizing a working paper on one major effect: the cost of housing. Zoning and other land-use regulations have the potential to make housing much more expensive (indeed, this is often touted as one of the benefits of zoning to homeowners: maintaining property values).

What’s interesting about the paper by Gyourko and Krimmel is they find that zoning (and other regulations) does increase home prices, but only in certain cities! San Francisco, LA, NYC, Seattle, and NYC stand out (despite only 15% of NYC being subject to single-family zoning) as causing very large increases in housing prices. But just as interesting, places like Cincinnati, Dallas, Columbus, and Minneapolis have almost no “zoning tax,” despite the fact that they do in fact have zoning laws (though Minneapolis has recently made some major reforms). While zoning laws certainly impact Cincinnati and Dallas in various ways, such as making life in the city heavily dependent on owning a car, they don’t appear to have the effect of increasing prices. At least, not yet.

But could cities really eliminate zoning? Let me be clear about Gray’s book: while half of the book is mostly just a “getting to know zoning” exercise, the overall message of the book is that we don’t need zoning and that it’s bad. What would a world without zoning look like?

To answer this question, Gray tells us that we don’t need to dream. We can just look at one of America’s largest cities: Houston (4th largest city, and the primary city of the 5th largest MSA). Houston, famously, does not have zoning. There is no R-1 or R-2 in Houston. And this is no secret. While I’m not someone who is in the weeds on zoning issues, it’s never too long before someone brings up Houston. Usually someone will say “Houston has no zoning, and it’s fine,” and someone will respond “yes, but I’m from Houston, and we have other regulations that are basically zoning.” So, does Houston really have zoning-by-another-name?

Gray devotes an entire chapter of the book to Houston, and it’s the clearest concise discussion of the “does Houston have zoning?” question I’ve read. In short, Houston does have deed restrictions which are publicly enforced, and deed restrictions do a lot of the same things as zoning. But Gray is still optimistic about Houston as a model for reform. First, deed restrictions only cover about 25% of land in Houston, compared with the 75-90% that is typical in most other large US cities. Second, deed restrictions are voluntarily entered into by property owners (at least at some point in the property’s history), and the restrictions can be tailored to the specific needs of the neighborhood, rather than blanket citywide planning that often needs variances and exceptions to fit local neighborhood needs (which can often be blocked by motivated minorities). Houston isn’t perfect. Land isn’t dirt cheap. It’s still a very car-dependent city. But the author thinks it is much better than the way most US cities regulate land use.

One last thing about Houston: three times in the twentieth century, citywide zoning has been put to a public vote. Each time, it was rejected by voters (the most recent vote was 1993). I’m not aware of any other city that has done this. Sure, you can do polls on repealing zoning, as was done in California when they very recently abolished single-family zoning (by the legislature, not a public vote). And those polls suggest many people like the status quo. But first of all, people often have status quo bias, especially about issues they don’t really understand. And even in Houston in 1993, polls suggested voters would overwhelmingly approve zoning. They didn’t!

I highly recommend this book. It’s well written, fun to read, and you’ll learn something about an important, often misunderstood form of law that affects most of our lives (unless you live in Houston!). Even if you don’t come away from the book as a militant, anti-zoning urbanist, you’ll still learn a lot about how zoning works, its history, and where land-use regulation might go in the future. But it might just radicalize you too.

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