[THE THIRD WAY] Zoning damages American cities


Melissa Nie

In his column, The Third Way, Columnist Kieran Singh will explore political issues in depth or recent news.

Important things are often boring or controversial. Zoning is no exception. Many complaints regarding the cost of living can often be reduced to simple economics: not enough supply. Zoning dates back to the era of Jim Crow when city planners could use housing policy to restrict the rights of African-Americans. Nowadays, zoning is used, in a similar discriminatory manner, to prevent density that would relieve renters and the less fortunate of skyrocketing housing prices. Low-density zoning is prevalent in cities like Minneapolis and St. Paul, with single-family homes covering more than 3/4ths of the land area according to MinnPost. This is because homeowners have a vested financial interest in rejecting higher density. Homeowners rallied against a plan last year that would bring much-needed redevelopment to the Ford Site in St. Paul, showing they value their own pocketbook over preventing a devastating housing crisis. The plan itself caused a massive amount of controversy in the St. Paul community and was even featured on RubicOnline. Since the community is rather well-to-do, many were against the plan because of decreased property values and increased traffic. The plan was eventually passed by the St. Paul city council, but many in the pro-development community argue we need much more than just one plan.

The only way to prevent gentrification is to build more, so supply and demand can shift at the same rate.”

Anti-Development homeowners, accurately called  NIMBYs (not in my backyard), don’t want the prices of their homes to fall with an increased supply of housing, even with a corresponding fall in rents. NIMBYs are often wealthy, which gives them disproportionate political power in local government to restrict housing supply for personal gain. This leads to perpetual restriction of housing density, serving as a bottleneck for the free market and the interests of the poor.

NIMBYs can be hypocrites on both sides of the political spectrum: they can be Republicans who ignore the free market in favor of personal gain or Democrats who ignore the interests of the poor in favor of personal gain. Even more hypocritical and infuriating is the rhetoric from these people that new development is gentrification. Gentrification happens when people are priced out of their homes, with rents too high for a lower-middle class family to afford. Contrary to what these NIMBYs say, the only way to prevent gentrification is to build more, so supply and demand can shift at the same rate. Some of these people also advocate for rent control, ignorant that it creates a very obvious housing shortage. Take San Francisco, housing prices have been skyrocketing, which is counterintuitive considering the ultraleftist attitudes of the residents. The city government is influenced by NIMBYs, who want to prevent any increased density for fear of falling home prices. Working families, the ones San Francisco progressives purport to be the champions of, are continually pushed out of their homes.

Yet a representative in San Francisco, the worst offender of problematic zoning policies, is proposing a solution to NIMBYism. California State Sen. Scott Wiener has introduced SB 827, a bill that would radically increase height and density limits to up to 8 stories around public transport. Since public transport is prevalent in California, a bill that affects zoning in the vicinity of public transport could effectively change the zoning policy of the entire state. This bill would not only reduce the price of housing throughout the state, it would make California’s housing policy environmentally friendly, as higher density zoning is more sustainable than single-family. Wiener, unfortunately, faces a steep uphill battle. Far-left groups and regressive homeowners alike have smeared SB 827 as a gift to developers and a catalyst for gentrification. NIMBYs are missing the point: New development prevents gentrification by incentivizing the rich to move into new units rather than forcing the poor out of their homes. Further, if we can solve an integral factor in inequality, does it matter if developers benefit? If so, I would call upon our billionaire developer President to push through a national version of SB827, and free the people of anti-market and classist zoning. Of course, that’s just a pipe dream; but if we, in the SPA community, support plans like the Ford site, we might make our community more inclusive and affordable.