A Story of Zoning: Laws in a Land Far, Far, Away…. Part 1

Let’s leave Stanford for a bit and enter the fictional town of Pleasantville. For generations, Pleasantville has been a haven for well-off families, a means to escape from hustle and bustle of city life. The population is primarily composed of wealthy and upper-middle class citizens. Most homes are luxurious single-family homes, complete with two stories and a nice pool in the backyard. Homes have a decent amount of space between them, and every street is full of beautiful trees. The schools, due to high property values and immense levels of parental support, are incredible. There are three huge parks in Pleasantville and a golf course for residents to enjoy. The town center is full of small locally owned businesses. Home values are high, and residents would like to keep them that way.

In Pleasantville, things didn’t stay the same. In a neighboring city, massive new factories opened, and due to the labor-intensive nature of many factories, large amounts of housing were needed. Developers planned to build massive, tightly-packed apartment complexes in Pleasantville to accommodate the influx of workers. Existing Pleasantville residents weren’t too happy about this. More apartments. Lower prices. Larger community. Crowding. Hygiene. Crime. A loss of community “identity.”

Local politicians were unable to openly ban new entrants, but they could be subtler. After all, there was a huge political payoff for addressing the issue. Pleasantville, looking to maintain residential stability and control housing growth, passed a set of zoning laws: codes that mandate where specific structures can be built, how many can be built, and what kinds of specifications they must have. For example, a lot minimum sets the smallest lot size possible; a higher lot minimum means fewer homes can be built per unit of area, increasing housing prices. A height maximum could decrease the amount of apartment units build. Through these laws, Pleasantville was able to keep large swaths of factory workers out due to restrictions on housing and elevated prices. Existing residents were happy, and politicians kept getting elected.

Pleasantville’s laws were controversial, and soon they ended up in front of the nation’s top court: the Happyland Supreme Court. In an opinion upholding the zoning laws, the Chief Justice described how cities had an interest in controlling growth to protect the viability of essential services. But he also said something else, something more revealing: “Very often the apartment house is a mere parasite, constructed in order to take advantage of the open spaces and attractive surroundings created by the residential character of the district.”

I made a typo. In the preceding paragraph, I wrote how the quote was from the “Happyland Supreme Court.” What I meant to write was: “United States Supreme Court.” This case, Village of Euclid, Ohio v. Amber Realty Co (1926), isn’t fiction and neither are zoning laws. In fact, Pleasantville’s story closely resembles what happened in many major cities and suburbs across the United States during the early 1900s. It all began in New York where massive population growth fueled widespread construction of commercial and residential buildings, some so high they entirely eclipsed other buildings in their shadow. In 1915, things reached a tipping point. The Equitable Life Insurance Company built a building so high that three other buildings were entirely shrouded in darkness. Local pressure forced New York to pass the first comprehensive zoning code in 1916, much as local pressure forced our fictional town of Pleasantville to do the same thing. Zoning soon spread across the United States, where it remains prevalent today.

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A postcard depicting the massive Equitable Life Insurance Building that led New York to pass its first zoning regulations.
There is no doubt that zoning laws do serve a valuable city goal. If construction were allowed to continue unregulated, then the city would have no control over the expansion of city services, etc. Additionally, there can be some economic incentives, as we will see in part two of this piece when we examine the Bay Area. However, at their core, zoning laws are an example of one segment of the population, existing landowners, using government power to advantage themselves relative to another segment, those who do not yet live in a city. From one ethical perspective, this action may be justified. Existing residents live in a city, pay for its services, and contribute to its economic growth. Why shouldn’t a city’s government help these residents? Isn’t it illogical to have City X work to help residents in City Y? On the other hand, we must remember that we do not simply live in a city. Instead, a city is part of a wider political union, woven into the intricate nexus of governance ranging from the federal level to local government. Shouldn’t a city recognize this “bigger picture” and avoid enacting laws that may price out other members of the same political union (i.e. a state) that wish to simply move to another part of this same network? There is no easy answer to these questions, but they must be considered. One may form an opinion on whether a city should use its zoning power, but there is a deeper issue. Should cities even have the power to enact zoning regulation in the first place? Doesn’t zoning violate our basic tenets of equality under the law? A law that only allows one type of home to be built in a certain area implicitly treats citizens differently since more well-off citizens tend to live in bigger single-family homes.

Not only is the justification for zoning laws unaligned with principles of equality and freedom, but, as we will see in part two of this piece when we examine the zoning laws in Silicon Valley, the results too fail to serve all citizens.

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