In a recent New York Times op ed, economist Enrico Moretti points out the awful consequences in the Bay Area of California, where local governments have some of the nation’s harshest zoning regulations:
The area has some of the most progressive voters and policymakers in the nation, yet it has also adopted some of the most regressive housing policies, with large costs for low-income renters and the environment….
In a recent paper (coauthored with Chang-Tai Tsieh), Moretti estimates that cutting back zoning in highly restrictive cities like San Francisco to the national average level would increase GDP by a whopping 9.5% and provide hundreds of thousands of workers with access to better job opportunities and housing.
Liberal housing policy specialist Shane Phillips, director of of Policy for the Central City Association, laments the “disconnect between liberal aspirations and liberal housing policy”:
The people who live in coastal urban cities tend to be a pretty liberal bunch….
Along the same lines, the Brooking Institution – a leading liberal think tank – recently published an excellent article surveying the enormous harm inflicted by zoning restrictions, authored by Harvard economist Edward Glaeser, one of the world’s leading experts on the economics of cities. Yale Law School Professor David Schleicher has done important work explaining how zoning (along with other regulations) has become a major impediment to economic mobility and income gains for the working class.
In The Captured Economy, a compelling new book coauthored by libertarian Brink Lindsey and liberal political scientist Steve Teles, restrictive zoning is singled out as one of the most significant government policies that slow growth and enable wealthy interests to enrich themselves at the expense of the poor.
Over the last several years, other leading liberal academics and public policy commentators have made similar points, including Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman, Matthew Yglesias, and Jason Furman, Chair of President Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers.
In June, I experienced this growing trend in left-wing opinion first-hand when I gave a talk on this subject at a panel on housing at the American Constitution Society annual conference (video available here and here). ACS is the liberal counterpart to the conservative/libertarian Federalist Society (of which I am a longtime member). Being a libertarian, I was invited to the ACS panel in part to provide ideological balance. Yet the audience reaction was so positive that I felt almost as if I were a member of the “home team” rather than an “oppositional” speaker. The liberal panelists echoed many of the points I made, and vice versa.
It is a great thing that liberal policy experts are pointing out this grave shortcoming in the housing policies pursued by many of the nation’s most liberal cities and states. It is always harder – and for that reason more admirable – to point out the flaws of your own side of the political spectrum than those of the hated partisan enemy. That is especially true in this era of severe partisan polarization.
Conservative Republicans are far from blameless when it comes to zoning. But, as Shane Phillips noted in the excerpt quoted above, liberal jurisdictions tend to be among the worst in this field.
Sadly, the growing recognition of this problem by scholars and policy analysts across the political spectrum has so far not resulted in much political action. It is rarely, if ever, mentioned in campaigns by Democratic politicians. Similarly, the cause is rarely taken up by liberal activist groups.
In fairness, conservative Republicans also rarely focus on the harm caused by zoning. During the 2016 election, much was made of the problems of the white working class. But neither major party pointed out that restrictive zoning is one of the main causes of those problems. This is actually an area where working-class whites have an important common interest with the minority poor – one that is largely ignored by both politicians and voters.
Transforming widespread expert agreement on zoning into effective political action will not be an easy task. The neglect of this issue by parties and policymakers is rooted in the broader problem of widespread political ignorance.
The vast majority of voters quite rationally devote little time and effort to understanding policy issues. And the ways in which zoning inflates housing prices and destroys job opportunities are not immediately obvious to most ordinary people, especially those who do not know basic economics.
Most well-meaning liberal voters probably do not realize the harmful side-effects of liberal cities’ zoning policies. As a result, politicians and influential interest groups who benefit from the status quo can continue business as usual, with little or no fear of political backlash.
Breaking through this logjam will be difficult. But we must keep trying. The rewards of success are potentially enormous.