Community Control Is Destroying America’s Cities

East Williamsburg, with extreme demand and no redeeming architectural value, remains stunted at two and three stories. Image from Wikimedia.East Williamsburg, with extreme demand and no redeeming architectural value, remains stunted at two and three stories. Image from Wikimedia.

Much of urban America, and New York City in particular, is in crisis. Cities are becoming desirable again, but planning is still stuck in the post-war mentality of decline. Rents are skyrocketing as new housing supply pales against incoming demand, and while politicians and planners might see what’s going on, they are powerless to stand up to the NIMBY forces and stop it. From Palo Alto to Williamsburg back to Santa Monica, our wealthiest and most in-demand neighborhoods remain in their stunted states, walled off to growth, radiating everything from gentrification to global inequality. Our inner suburbs don’t densify, and the only other option for a growing population is to sprawl.

There is, however, another way: ignore “the community.”

Not the community writ large, but “the community” as a euphemism for those who are already lucky enough to live in a neighborhood that others want to move to, whether it’s a hip, gentrifying neighborhood or an uptight, leafy suburb. Land use governance should be shifted from the local level to the city, state or national level, where governments seem to be more willing to let cities grow.

The movement toward local control in planning made sense two generations ago, when higher powers were raining highways and urban renewal onto declining cities. But now that urban fortunes have turned so dramatically, the effect of local control has turned sinister.

It’s not obvious why – perhaps people are just better at telling others that they should be accepting new housing than they are at taking their own advice? – but higher level planning seems to yield more development, and community control tends towards much more conservative outcomes.

In New York and Chicago, you can see divergent attitudes towards development at different levels of government even within the current structure. The cities’ mayors – whether Bloomberg, de Blasio or the Daleys – are more pro-development than council members and community groups. The push to rezone for growth almost always comes from the mayor and his planning department, while local council members tend to want to scale back plans, or restrict development through downzonings.

Greg Morrow deftly documents the downzoning of Los Angeles in his 2013 dissertation, when planning was turned over to “the community” in the 1970s. Local planning resulted in the city losing 60 percent of its zoned residential capacity during those years, and wealthy, white communities on the city’s in-demand Westside were most resistant to new supply.

And Silicon Valley has perhaps the ultimate in local control, since its cities are minuscule, functioning more like neighborhoods than true cities. In San Francisco, the city government is at least willing to overlook the anti-growth views of some of the 11,000 or so current South of Market residents and and allow a crop of towers to rise in the formerly industrial neighborhood. But in Atherton, the few thousand people who would be most immediately impacted by development – not even enough to merit their own school district – are the only ones who have a say in planning, and they’ve never allowed a single apartment to be built.

But in the Pacific Northwest, the housing situation is much brighter. In 2014, Oregon and Washington both permitted around four new homes for every 1,000 existing residents – twice as many housing units as the two approved for every 1,000 Californians. Both Portland and Seattle set permitting records last year, with approvals in both cities for more units than in any year since at least 1980, the earliest we can find data.

Oregon and Washington, it turns out, are also the two states in the U.S. that have most strongly embraced state-level planning. The states’ sprawl-restricting urban growth boundaries are the most famous example, but the states also have ways to force their cities to accept densification.

Even notoriously unzoned Houston – which set a record along with Oregon and Washington last year for units permitted – has its own way of elevating land use decisions above petty, local NIMBY concerns. According to the city charter, zoning in Houston must be approved in a citywide referendum, avoiding what’s known in Chicago as aldermanic privilege, by which local elected officials have veto power over issues like development that occur solely within their district. Houston has voted on zoning a few times, most recently in 1993, but it’s never passed.

Fast-growing cities in other developed countries also have higher-level planning. Canada offers the closest examples, with Toronto having the most prominent provincial controls. The locally despised Ontario Municipal Board has the unchecked power to approve real estate projects that Toronto’s city council rejects, setting the tone for Toronto’s torrid rate of construction.

And then there’s the undisputed king of the mega-cities: Tokyo. In Japan, it’s not the provinces, but the central government that wields the most influence. National politicians have always been very eager to boost construction for the sake of the economy, and the result is very loose zoning. An incredible urban building machine is growing Tokyo’s already enormous housing stock at a rate many times that of London and New York, with much lower housing costs than other developed megacities.

Back to the United States, between New York and California, the latter seems like the likelier candidate for progress on land use governance. There’s clear concern at the state level about the cost of housing that is noticeably absent in Albany, and there have already been some attempts, albeit largely failed, at holding local governments accountable for housing their populations.

California already has a mandated Regional Housing Need Allocation process, which looks superficially like something you might find in Washington or Oregon, but is unfortunately not effective. There have also been a few attempts in the state legislature to ban cities from requiring developers to build excessive amounts of parking near transit, but they’ve never passed.

In the New York area, however, it’s harder to see any hope on the horizon for any state or regional housing production mandates. New Jersey has the Mount Laurel doctrine, with courts ruling that municipalities must zone some land to accommodate subsidized housing development, but there’s no similar requirement for market-rate growth. And even the tepid Mount Laurel doctrine is being weakened by Chris Christie, with the New York Times writing that the governor has shown “utter contempt” for Mount Laurel, and is standing in the way of its implementation.

With housing production in New York City near the bottom nationally and building in its in-state suburbs almost nonexistent, it’s clear that the status quo is not working. When Bill de Blasio fails to solve the city’s affordable housing crisis – which his own chief planner has admitted he probably will – it may be time to consider appealing to a higher authority.

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