Business News analysis: Why is the zoning of single-family homes...

News analysis: Why is the zoning of single-family homes under attack?


Dahlem is one of the most prosperous neighborhoods in Berlin, its charming and leafy streets lined with large mansions, villas, as the Germans call them, built mainly in the early twentieth century. While walking from the thatched-roofed U-Bahn station to dinner at a friend’s house that wasn’t exactly Daddy-Warbucks a recent afternoon, I was initially surprised at how he managed to afford such an elegant environment.

Then I saw a villa with six bell buttons at the front door instead of just one. After that, I noticed one or two more subdivided villas, plus a couple of small plates indicating that there were medical offices inside. My friend’s place turned out to be in a small apartment building that was newer than the surrounding houses, but built at approximately the same scale.

Such mixed housing is not completely unknown in the US. UU., But it is mainly in neighborhoods that are prior to zoning, which began its rise in the United States in the 1910s and 1920s. In the era of zoning, especially since World War II, the general rule for The residential neighborhoods have been single-family homes and only single-family homes, with no apartments or businesses allowed.

In Germany, which is generally credited with the invention of zoning, this practice of dividing cities into areas destined to certain activities and forms of construction dates back to the 1870s. The development in Dahlem, an old estate that ended up in the hands of The government was even administered by a Royal Commission for the Dahlem Domain Division that ruled that plot buyers had to erect villa-type buildings in two years or pay a fine.

German planning and zoning innovations got a lot of attention elsewhere, and American reformers who began advocating more restrictive urban development rules in the early 1900s were quite open about their Teutonic inspiration, at least until World War I. But while German laws and regulations do a lot to determine how and where people can build, they don’t dictate that single-family housing be separated from everything else.

In fact, virtually no other country does this to the extent that the US does it. UU. As Sonia Hirt, a professor of architecture and landscape planning at the University of Georgia, wrote in her charming and illuminating 2014 book “Zoned in the USA”: “I could not find evidence in other countries that this particular form, single-family housing independently, whether routinely, as in the United States, considered so incompatible with all other types of urbanization as to guarantee a legally defined district of its own, a district where all other major land uses and types of buildings are prohibited. “

Single-family zoning is now on the defensive in the US. UU., With the vote of the City Council of Minneapolis in 2018 to allow up to three housing units on each residential plot, and the Oregon Legislature doing something on the same line (rules vary by city size) year past.

State Sen. Scott Wiener, a Democrat from San Francisco, on the left, talks about his housing measure, Senate Bill 50, during a committee hearing in 2019.

(Rich Pedroncelli / AP)

Although similar legislation has so far failed in California, other reforms to allow homeowners to add units to existing homes, in the words of an expert, have put the state “to the precipice of functionally non-existent single-family zoning,” and more reforms Bold are not yet You are not dead. In California, Senate Bill 50 has been reintroduced with changes that give cities and counties two years to develop plans to boost development before state mandates for higher housing density are put in place.

These efforts have engendered some alarming and alarmist reactions. “Democrats declare war on the suburbs, seek to ban single-family homes,” conservative journalist Luke Rosiak wrote on Twitter in promotion of his Daily Caller article about a bill he just introduced in the Virginia Legislature that said “It could quickly transform the suburban lifestyle enjoyed by millions.” Suburban thinkers Joel Kotkin and Wendell Cox argued in the City Journal that without a generalized housing property, “the United States will become increasingly feudal in its economic and social form.”

Kotkin and Cox hinted, but were careful enough not to openly claim that abolishing single-family zoning would have this effect. His caution was justified. In fact, Germany is a country where home ownership and single-family homes are minority phenomena, and I will leave it to decide if that means it is feudal. Many other rich nations have rates of home ownership similar to or higher than those in the US. UU. (The highest tend to be in the communist states of Eastern Europe) without a single-family American-style zoning.

The most famous explanation of why single-family zoning is so prevalent in the US. UU. It is probably the “Homevoter Hypothesis” by economist at Dartmouth College William Fischel: except in some cities, local politics are dominated by landlords, landlords favor policies that increase the value of their properties, and single-family zoning is perceived as precisely doing that.

Hirt, who was born and raised in Bulgaria, recognized the power of this reasoning in “Zoning in the United States”, but argued that it is incomplete. “If the real estate economy were and remains the key factor, if residential property values ​​inevitably decrease in environments where multiple land uses and housing types are allowed,” he wrote, “the people of the other capitalist democracies they shouldn’t have the same fear. ” about the surroundings of your home and the values ​​of your home?

Hirt proposed, instead, that a particular set of cultural beliefs determine the form that zoning took in the 1920s and that later this form has shaped the American notions “of the places in the city where we can and must meet, the streets we can and should travel, how many cars we can and should have, and the types of homes we can and should live in. ”

Some of these cultural beliefs in favor of single-family housing date at least from the foundation of the USA. UU. And of the preferences of certain founders for the country over the city. Others were exclusive to the 1920s and really very crazy. The grocery stores in the corners were represented as vectors of diseases and disorders, while the historic decision of the Supreme Court of 1926 that established the legality of the zoning stated that “very often the apartment building is a mere parasite.”

This was a time when many reformist types also supported eugenics, and the role of similar intolerance in the zoning boom cannot be denied. But it was also driven by relatively innocent beliefs that turned out to be totally wrong. Zoning advocates argued, for example, that channeling residential development into separate single-family home neighborhoods far from stores and offices would be a blessing to the health of Americans, while, in fact, the extreme dependence on cars that It often turned out to have been the opposite.

Would getting rid of the single-family zoning suddenly reverse all this and transform the suburbs? Uh no Ibraheem Samirah, Virginia’s suburban dentist and newly elected state legislator who sponsored the zoning reform bill discussed above, said he believes any change “would be much more long-term, much slower.” His hope, he told me last week, is It changes the balance in local housing policy a bit by giving homeowners the opportunity to benefit from the development of their own properties rather than fighting near development. “I am trying to expand the coalition of more affordable housing beyond developers to homeowners,” he said.

Meanwhile, in Berlin, it is not that the absence of single-family zoning has solved all real estate problems in the city. Purchase prices and especially rents remain low by the standards of the world’s major cities, but they have increased so much in the last two decades that the local government felt compelled to impose a five-year rental freeze last fall.

Single-family zoning is not the only cause of high housing prices in California, Virginia or elsewhere in the US. UU. But it is a bit strange.

Fox writes a column for Bloomberg.


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