Opposing Land-Use Developments in New York and Houston

August 28th, 2013

Teaching property and land use in Houston is a unique experience, because my new home-town lacks a formal zoning code (there are informal ways that the City achieves various land-use ends). In class, I like to juxtapose New York and Houston, to illustrate how large cities approach land use, and offer various comparisons about the cost of living in both cities, as a function of the cost of building. The comparisons are not exact, but they gives students, many of whom have lived in Texas their entire lives, a sense of how construction in New York works.

A recent Reuters articles gives a nice glimpse of some of the difficulties of building under New York’s zoning law, with quotations from David Schleicher and Roderick Hills. They identify that in New York, bigger developers can more easily make their way around the zoning process, while smaller developers cannot.

In an ideal world, zoning laws would be straightforward enough that developers could navigate them fairly easily without too much case-by-case wrangling with local bureaucrats. New York City’s zoning laws, alas, are far from straightforward. The Bloomberg era has seen an unprecedented number of rezonings and upzonings (increases in allowable density) to allow new development to go forward. Yet it has also seen a great deal of downzoning (decreases in allowable density) and contextual rezoning that has reduced the ability of people to build new housing without seeking special permission in neighborhoods across the city. These downzonings are pushed by neighborhood groups that oppose new development, but they rarely meet with resistance from people who will have to pay the higher housing costs that are the result of downzonings.

Large-scale developers can get around these restrictions when they want to build by making direct appeals to City Hall and going through the complicated and expensive zoning amendment process. But small-scale developers, or individual homeowners who want to build a new housing unit on top of their brownstone, don’t have the time or the money to do the same. To avoid situations in which upzonings are outweighed by downzonings, Schleicher and Hills have proposed citywide “zoning budgets.” The idea is that every downzoning in one neighborhood will have to be balanced by an upzoning in another until citywide goals for housing affordability are met.

Basic public choice theory tells us that developers with more clout will be better able to navigate, and indeed shape, the regulatory maze necessary to build. That much is straightforward.

But let’s look at this from the opposite perspective–from the point of view of the homeowners who want to stop a construction. In New York, the procedures are in place to make it easy enough for NIMBY homeowners to oppose some new change in the zoning laws.

Opposition to new development, in New York and elsewhere, usually flows from the sense that current residents won’t actually benefit from an influx of new arrivals. The fear is that big new developments will lead to traffic congestion and crowded subways, and much else besides.

I used to teach a class about the steps necessary to build something in Manhattan (which went through the various meetings, committees, etc.), but I stopped teaching it because there wasn’t enough bang for the buck. In short, there are so many potential roadblocks to stop a construction that members of the community could place.

In Houston, the dynamic is exactly the opposite. Because there is no formal mechanism for citizens to challenge land uses, homeowners are virtually powerless to stop new constructions. They can’t stop it. The unsuccessful five-year battle to stop the Ashby High Rise in an affluent neighborhood is proof. Not even the wealthiest Houstonians could stop a high-rise being built in a residential area, even though they organized massive protests at City Hall, plastered the city with signs, filed several (weak) law suits, and engaged in political lobbying. Because Houston has no real zoning review process, they couldn’t do anything.

Now, consider those with less means. I raise in class the example of poor members of the community trying to stop a similar construction, and the students all agree–it would be impossible in H-Town. Those most in the need of help fighting back lack the channels to do so. This is one of the massive down-sides of a lack of a zoning code.

Interestingly enough, minorities tend to oppose zoning codes, and in the last referendum to impose a zoning code, African-Americans and Mexican-Americans largely voted against it. (n. 1) I think there was the sense that minorities would be zoned out of living in certain areas (zoning has a very exclusionary history in Texas, and elsewhere).

Finally, despite charges that they were engaging in unprincipled racial scare tactics, opponents [of the zoning referendum] apparently convinced lower-income minority communities that zoning would mean costlier housing and racial segregation: 72% of Black voters and 58% of Mexican-Americans opposed the referendum.

At some point, I will write an article about public choice, political power, and Houston’s lack of a zoning code, after Ashby. Eventually.