Wednesday, 17 August 2016

Housing: Houston, ‘Land Use Without Zoning’

 

I have a copy on my desk of Bernard Siegan’s classic Land Use Without Zoning, of which I’ve been a fan ever since I encountered it way back in the mists of time when I studied at Auckland’s Architecture and Planning School. There it was at the library shared by both faculties – and by the borrowing card in the back (anyone else remember when library books had pockets for the borrowing card?) I discovered that I was the only one how ever borrowed it. Not one planning student had their curiosity every piqued.

So anyway, while Auckland houses enjoys an eye-watering median multiple of 9.7 (meaning that median house prices are a severely unaffordable 9.7 times the city’s median income) making if the fifth-most expensive city in the world by this measure, Houston revels in a very affordable median multiple of just 3.5 – even as its population grows at a faster rate than ours.

One reason, to be sure, is that Houston has room to expand. (But so do we!)   it may not.  Another reason: both building and expanding in Houston have very few regulatory constraints compared to the fifth most expensive city in the world. Why? Because instead of town planners who decide when and where folk can build, you have a market respecting property rights. How? By the time-honoured medium of price signals, and the common law of nuisance and common law mechanisms of covenant and easement that let them work.

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Turns out (who would have knows?!) that this protects property rights more securely, is much more inexensive to administer, and is very much more predictable and efficient for builders and buyers alike. And –to counter a few furphies -- because nuisance law discourages it and market pressures encourage coalescence of industry, no glue factories are built next to homes (the land is too valuable for factories); and almost all commercial uses are along major thoroughfares and business parks, not in Joe and Janet Homeowner’s backyard.

Siegan “sets forth the case for zero zoning and carefully documents a practical transitional programme for moving away from today’s labyrinth of land-use zoning.” His short summary of the some of the outcomes compared to zoning is a useful short read:

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Sure, Houston sits on a flat plain so it’s economic to sprawl—but with the same common law measures in a more gegraphically-constrained location it may not, and assuredly land would still be able to find its highest value use, and extra costs would not be imposed on buyers by planners willing a city to grow in a way to which it is not suited. And as the book itself points out, as travel and insfrastructure costs do go up as a city goes out, economic forces even in flat, sprawling Houston encouraged greater densities and smaller lot sizes in the inner part of the city for home-owners happy with that trade-off.

So it’s not an up versus out argument here, it’s letting property rights works and price signals accurately reflect the pressures of both supply and demand.

I commend the book, and the city’s non-zoning, to your attention.

Although I expect Auckland’s planners will remain uninterested.

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