Monday, December 18, 2006

Zoning- Your Tool for Keeping Out Undesirables

The only zoned neighborhood in Houston, TX- known as the largest city in the world without a comprehensive zoning law- rejects a planned housing project.

I should point out here that one of the points that I am not moderate at all on is property rights. I believe that, if someone is allowed to dictate to you how something may or may not be used, you don't own it. The person who can take away your property if he doesn't like how you use it- HE is the actual owner of your property. With most things, like for example automobiles, there are rules for using them in public, but if you have a private racetrack you can do as you like with the thing, and no one can stop you. So long as what you do with what you own harms no one else, you should be free to do it...

... but the one apparently universal exception to this, according to the law, is land. To me this is unacceptable- how can you own things if you don't have a secure and inviolable place to put them? Your right to own things is directly limited by your capacity to either store them or carry them from one place to another. Without strong private property rights, no form of ownership is secure.

For that reason I oppose homeowner's associations- especially the way they exist here in Texas, where you can become part of an HOA without your consent and without a prior deed restriction, then be dispossessed for violating the HOA's rules. I oppose deed restrictions themselves- if you want to retain control of property, LEASE it, don't SELL it. Deed restrictions, to me, are a form of fraud.

And I especially oppose zoning laws.

Granted, there are some uses of property which should be restricted. If someone moves in next to your house and sets up a twenty-four hour metal working shop without soundproofing, that's noise pollution and actionable. If that someone leaves junk cars and old tires around that allow rats and mosquitoes to breed, that's a health hazard, and also actionable. There should, and must, be laws in place to protect your rights from pollution violations.

Zoning laws don't exist for this purpose. In fact, zoning laws were first created to defend racism and bigotry- by forbidding blacks, Irish, Hispanics or other undesirables from settling in certain areas. These laws were defended, when racism could no longer be defended in courts, by a new, novel and pernicious principle: that property owners had an innate human right to protection against the lowering of their property's market value. Eventually racial zoning was declared universally unconstitutional, but the policy of guaranteed home values remained- and was upheld- allowing the de facto ban of undesirables long after de jure bans were struck down.

Why is a guaranteed market value a bad thing? First, it's impossible. Market values are not objective; they are only what people are willing to pay for your property at any given moment. This changes from moment to moment based on thousands of factors, including education, employment, economic trends, easy or tight credit, fashion, transportation, etc. etc. etc. Virtually none of these things are under the control of any person, or even any government. For the most part they are uncontrolled, or at least controllable only by burdensome regulation and brutal enforcement.

Second, and more pernicious, the only way to even moderate the fluctuations in property values is to vastly curtail the free use of other people's property by other people. This is not done merely to prevent people from allowing their homes to deteriorate. In some cases zoning, deed restrictions, and other such tools have been used to prevent an individual from INCREASING the value of their home by additions or expansions, making other nearby homes less valuable by comparison. These rules have led to such absurdities as mandating the color of paint used on homes, the permissible height of grass to half an inch, and requirements that political signs be restricted to only particular political parties.

Third, zoning hurts the growth of new businesses. Small entrepeneurs or self-employed individuals can find themselves fined or even dispossessed for working from their homes. Commercial buildings and offices have their prices artificially inflated by restriction of availability and location. In this form zoning laws protect the rich and powerful from competition, giving them a tool to crush any product or service which might threaten their market share.

Finally, zoning laws are used to enforce prejudice... as in this case.

You see, the reason the application for a zoning exemption just barely failed in St. George Place was that the proposed housing project would be too densely packed and too low-scale for either the zoning regulations or the residents. This housing would be noticably cheaper per unit than the rest of the neighborhood... which means, in effect, that the neighborhood rejected the hypothetical future tenants because they wouldn't be rich enough.

Those of you who do the right thing and read the article linked to at the top of this post will notice that, according to Chronicle writer Mike Snyder, zoning has been the sole cause of a massive success story in St. George Place. This is a gross case of post hoc ergo propter hoc reasoning- made even more gross by the fact that the actual reasons for St. George Place's revival are given in the article.

Fact: the zoning ordinance was driven through, using a little-known, seldom-used clause of Texas law, by land developer Robert Silvers. He wanted the zoning ordinance because it would allow the use of tax dollars for neighborhood improvement- in other words, to do things that he, as a developer, would otherwise have to pay for out of his own back pocket. Silvers was already interested in the area and almost certainly would have poured his millions into what had been a deteriorated, mostly vacant neighborhood regardless. It was this investment in the property that created St. George Place as it is today.

Fact: St. George Place is almost directly adjacent to the Galleria, Houston's high-end shopping district. The presence of the Galleria almost guaranteed returns on Silvers' investment, as the wealthy would be drawn to the area through simple supply and demand.

Fact: Claims that zoning attracted people to St. George Place, as cited in the article, are anecdotal and are taken primarily from people who came to the zoning board meeting to oppose the new development. It's entirely possible that this is true, but it's not proven- and certainly it's not proven that people would have refused to move to St. George Place without the zoning ordinance.

St. George Place didn't become a "tidy affluent neighborhood" because of zoning. It became that way because a land developer sank massive amounts of money into it, and because he attracted affluent people to live there. Unfortunately, by instituting zoning, he apparently attracted the kind of person dedicated to enforcing their own prejudices upon others. These people want to ensure a neighborhood where no one they disapprove of can enter- to quote the article, "a neighborhood with predictability and cohesion."

Sub-millionaire, don't let the sun set on you in St. George Place.

1 comment:

KMacK said...

In a way, certain sorts of Zoning are like the Electoral College: necessary at one time, but the need for both has diminished. There are some sensible zoning provisions; such as Industrial Zoning (Industry only) or housing volume zoning (R-1, R-2, etc; which supposedly restricts the number of residences on a given lot). The latter doesn't work very well, on my street which is Zoned R-2 (based on lot size), there have been four High-density Apartment structures built by means of bribery--OOPS! I meant Zoning variances...sorry 'bout that. Every one of them has had the opposite effect of St. George Place: they have driven my property taxes up, not down...ouch.
Fact is, you don't ever own land. You own the right to use it, that's all; and that right is a transferrable and inheritable right as well. The land, however, is never yours, only the use-rights
(that's what makes Eminent Domain-a real abuse- legal). There are more Eminent domain abuses per year than Zoning abuses, I'll bet'cha.
And, out here in the Land of the West (The People's republic of Kalifornia) a law has made HOA's and NPOA's unenforceable unless there is specific information about them in the Deed to the property, and it is disclosed before the sale of the said property. If not, these organizations have no authority over the property-use owner. That is, at least, one glimmer of sense from an otherwise senseless State.
But, generally, I agree that most Zoning Laws are no longer needed; and perhaps never were. What we need is a mandated LIFE for laws; say seven years: if they aren't re-enacted, they expire (like the Magazine Capacity Executive order).
That would assure that the laws were at least up-to-date, and not some relic unused for a century that is dusted off and used, usually to the detriment of the people. You'd be surprized at how many of these dinosaurs there are, and unlike their petrified cousins, they still bite.