Date Posted: March 2012
Generations of scholarship on the political economy of zoning have tried to explain a world in which tony suburbs run by effective homeowner lobbies use zoning to keep out development, but big cities allow relatively untrammeled growth because of the political influence of developers. Further, this literature has assumed that, while zoning restrictions can cause "micro-misallocations" inside a metropolitan region, they cannot increase housing prices throughout a region because some of the many local governments in a region will allow development. But these theories have been overtaken by events. Over the past few decades, land use restrictions have driven up housing prices in the nation's richest and most productive regions, resulting in massive changes in where in America people live and reducing the growth rate of the economy. Further, as demand to live in them has increased, many of the nation's biggest cities have become responsible for substantial limits on development. Although developers are, in fact, among the most important players in city politics, we have not seen enough growth in the housing supply in many cities to keep prices from skyrocketing.
This paper seeks to explain these changes with a story about big city land use that places the legal regime governing land use decisions at its center. Using the tools of positive political theory, I argue that, in the absence of strong local political parties, land use law sets the voting order in local legislatures, determining policy from potentially cycling preferences. Specifically, these laws create a peculiar procedure, a form of seriatim decision-making in which the intense preferences of local residents opposed to re-zonings are privileged against more weakly-held citywide preferences for an increased housing supply. Without a party leadership to organize deals and whip votes, legislatures cannot easily make deals for generally-beneficial legislation stick. Legislators, who may have preferences for building everywhere to not building anywhere, but stronger preferences for stopping construction in their districts, “defect” as a matter of course and building is restricted everywhere. Further, the seriatim nature of local land use procedure results in a large number of "downzonings," or reductions in the ability of landowners to build "as of right", as big developers do not have an incentive to fight these changes. The cost of moving amendments through the land use process means that small developers cannot overcome the burdens imposed by downzonings, thus limiting incremental growth in the housing stock.
Finally, the paper argues that, as land use procedure is the problem, procedural reform may provide a solution. Land use and international trade have similarly situated interest groups. Trade policy was radically changed, from a highly protectionist regime to a largely free trade one, by the introduction of procedural reforms like the Reciprocal Trade Agreements Act, adjustment assistance, and "safeguards" measures. The paper proposes changes to land use procedures that mimic these reforms. These changes would structure voting order and deal-making in local legislatures in a way that would create support for increases in the urban housing supply.