(Unedited) Podcast Transcript 398: The Arbitrary Lines of Zoning
This week we’re joined by Nolan Gray to talk about his new book Arbitrary Lines: How Zoning Broke the American City and How to Fix It. We talk about how cities were regulated before zoning, why state and national reforms are important and why zoning abolition should be the ultimate goal.
Below is a full unedited transcript of the show:
Jeff Wood (1m 23s):
Nolan Gray welcome to the talking headways podcast.
Nolan Gray (1m 48s):
Thanks so much for having me. It’s a pleasure to be here.
Jeff Wood (1m 50s):
Yeah. Thanks for coming before we get started. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
Nolan Gray (1m 54s):
Sure. So I’m currently a research director at California MB where we advocate for needed reforms to housing in Laney’s planning laws here in California, and to try to get a lot of housing built previously, I was a city planner in New York city, practicing city planner. And for the past few years, I’ve been writing on zoning and popular outlets and talking to policymakers at the state and local level.
Jeff Wood (2m 16s):
How’s your job going so far at YIMBY?
Nolan Gray (2m 19s):
I love it. You know, I always say one of the benefits of having a really advanced housing crisis is you’re also really advanced in thinking about solutions and the conversations happening here in California. Our incredible exciting work is being done over the last few years and today. And I think we’re developing a lot of policy reforms that are going to be able to be exported to other states as other states deal with similar problems. So, really great.
Jeff Wood (2m 42s):
When did you start getting into cities and thinking about zoning specifically, was there like a tipping point at some point in your life that kind of changed your mind about it?
Nolan Gray (2m 49s):
I’d always love cities. I basically been a bicycle commuter on and off since living on my own there, you know, undergrad and moving to DC, moving to DC, I totally fell in love with the city. It was incredible to be in a place where you just had all these opportunities that are rich, dense, mixed use transit friendly ish, certainly bikeable city offers. And I just fell in love. This would have been in the early 2010. So around the time that UMB ideas I think are starting to form and, and the ideas of what’s gone wrong with certainly Landis’ planning start to emerge in the popular awareness. So I was really interested in zoning in particular as the sensitization that is obviously fairly dysfunctional and there’s a lot of room for improvement.
Nolan Gray (3m 31s):
And so in terms of thinking about, you know, what I want to focus on and where I want to make progress, land use planning short me as a, as a great candidate. So went to planning school, worked as a planner for a few years to get more experience. And the book of course, is I think really a decade of chewing on these issues and thinking about these issues,
Jeff Wood (3m 48s):
A lot of people go to planning school and then they leave and then they’d go work at a zoning desk. And you actually had that experience, which is really interesting. I’m wondering if that played into your thinking about donating and coding and all those things that go along with thinking about cities?
Nolan Gray (4m 0s):
Absolutely. Yeah. I think working in the public sector was great because it helps you understand the nuances and it helps you understand why we get the policies that we do. You know, so I think a lot of zoning criticism comes at it and people will say things like, oh, the planners just wrote silly codes, or the planners don’t know what they’re doing. Having worked in the public sector, he pretty quickly realized actually planners have pretty good ideas about a lot of these things, but the politics of zoning are just so toxic that we get these highly dysfunctional codes that get you codes, that insurance high housing costs and segregation and auto orientation in many cases over the protests of our professional planning, civil service, it’s not always the case, right? I mean, you definitely have people in the planning public sector who think parking requirements are great.
Nolan Gray (4m 42s):
I think single family zoning is awesome, but in my experience, especially among younger planners, there’s an appreciation that these rules are dysfunctional and they need to change. So I think, you know, that’s, I think partly why I wanted to write the book. I wanted to give voice, I think, to this awareness that you increasingly have them on planners that know these rules do need to change. And a lot of exciting things are on the other side of rethinking the way we do land use planning.
Jeff Wood (5m 3s):
Historically zoning codes are interesting too, not just the timing of their history, but also kind of what gets in shrine. You’re talking about, you know, basically the politics getting into it. I remember, I think it was a friend of mine, Leon Swidler who writes codes in Austin, who was telling me there’s places that still have, like in the code there’s spots for mod shops and other things that like, you know, was specifically in the seventies, right? Like you don’t have those necessarily anymore, but they get stuck in the code because of just kind of the weirdness of the time period. And I find that interesting as well.
Nolan Gray (5m 30s):
Yeah. I mean, there was a joke, right? Like every line in a zoning ordinance is some fight that happened at some point in the last 100 years. Right. I was doing a lot of research on home-based business ordinances. So of course, zoning places, extremely strict rules on engaging in any kind of commercial activity in residential areas. So I’ve been looking at a lot of these home-based business rules. A lot of cities have been scrambling to try to change these over the last two years as everybody’s gone remote and regularly you’ll crack open these ordinances. And they’ll say, you know, the, of permitted home-based businesses includes clock repair, cobblers, you know, the military dressmakers. And you’re like, okay, like, I think I know what decade this code was made and then no reference to computers. Right?
Nolan Gray (6m 10s):
And you’re like, yeah, this is part and parcel to, I think what goes wrong with zoning is that, you know, this attempt to sort of systematically segregate think through and segregate every single use, it’s just sort of a few title project.
Jeff Wood (6m 22s):
You dive really deep into the history of zoning and note that it is a real, relatively recent invention that starts around 1916 and a decade later blows up with a Supreme court case as all planners know Euclid versus Ambler Realty, how are uses necessarily regulated before zoning codes were enacted?
Nolan Gray (6m 38s):
Yeah. So many cities would have rules for specific nuisance uses, right? So cities would say a certain type of industrial operations such as a slaughterhouse or a tannery would have to be physically separate from the city. So unlike zoning, where we try to say, we’re going to identify where every single land use can and can’t go historically, the way we solve this problem was by saying, okay, we know there are a few truly offensive uses. We’re going to segregate those out. And we know that there are a few truly offensive behaviors we’re going to regulate for those things. And that’s not to say that the pre zoning lady’s planning was perfect. Right? Of course there were things that fell through the gaps, but broadly that’s how they would deal with it by addressing the individual use, as opposed to the way we do it today, where we try to say, not only are we going to identify where the things we don’t want to have to go, but we’re going to identify where the things that we theoretically do want are going to go,
Jeff Wood (7m 24s):
You also talk about zoning is not right. You talk about the market. It’s not the, it’s not the only type of regulation you can use. It’s not city planning. What’s the strangest confusion about zoning that you’ve seen.
Nolan Gray (7m 36s):
So, I mean, I, I wanted to write that appendix on what zoning is not because, you know, when I sort of give the top line thesis of the book, which essentially we should abolish zoning and rethink what we want land use plan to do and how we’re going to do it. The first thing that I hear is like, you know, a whole bunch of things that have nothing to do with zoning. So for example, take the Minneapolis case where they abolished single family zoning. You saw, I think a lot of hysterical comments and even some news articles and major outlets saying, wow, Minneapolis is abolishing single family zoning. You’re not gonna be able to build a single family house in Minneapolis anymore. Right? It’s like, well, that’s just kind of a basic misunderstanding of what single family zoning was, which it’s not really, it’s a prohibition on building apartments, right?
Nolan Gray (8m 17s):
And if there wasn’t actually a demand for apartments or there wasn’t actually demand for additional housing or density, you wouldn’t get any bill because zoning is essentially stopping things. All zoning does a stopping things from happening, right? So the market of course is very important in determining what cities are going to look like in the current us context. Or for example, when I would raise the case of Houston, people would say, well, don’t, you know, Houston got hit by a giant hurricane and that would not have happened if Houston like engaged in segregation and, you know, kept in cities of single family homes. Of course you need really robust environmental regulations. You need rules to stop people from paving and wetlands. You need active fiscal planning to direct growth away from environmentally sensitive areas. But whether or not Houston had zoning would have had no impact whatsoever on that.
Nolan Gray (8m 60s):
I was just reading an article today on Katy, Texas, which is continuing to pave wetlands. And what do you know, Katie Texas has a very conventional zoning ordinance. There are other things that I think have issues, but I don’t really want to contend with in the book. Right. So, you know, getting rid of zoning doesn’t really have much to do with historic preservation. Doesn’t really have much to do with environmental review, certainly has nothing to do with building codes. This is another really common confusion, right? So I’ll be making this case and someone will say, but, but surely we need to regulate the buildings that get built and make sure they’re safe. But yeah, absolutely. I mean, I don’t think anyone would argue with that. I try to drill down to what I think the uncontroversial core pillars of zoning, what those are, and that’s systematic, city-wide use segregation and systematic citywide restrictions on density.
Nolan Gray (9m 45s):
That is what zoning is. Right. And I think when you actually appreciate what zoning adds to the broader planning ecosystem, I would contend that it doesn’t really add any value and actually causes a lot of problems. And it makes all those other planning objectives much harder to achieve.
Jeff Wood (9m 58s):
You mentioned Houston. It’s real interesting. I grew up outside of Houston in Kingwood, which actually got annexed by Houston, which is a really interesting story back in 19 94, 19 96, I think something around there. And there was a big dustup when we got annexed, because everybody was very upset. We were going to lose firetrucks and the police was going to be different and all this stuff, and we were gonna just lose regulation. But it’s really interesting to think about how like all of the hurricanes actually, you know, how it impacted my neighborhood flooding in parts. But part of the reason was because there was a dam upstream that actually had to release water because it was gonna overflow and not necessarily because of the way that the land was laid out and things like that. It’s interesting to think about all the other policies that are involved, all the environmental regulations. I mean, Houston’s a tabletop, if you drop 50 inches of rain on it and it has nowhere to go, that’s, that’s an, that’s a problem unto itself.
Nolan Gray (10m 42s):
Yeah, absolutely. I mean, this is another thing I hear. I don’t want to jump the gun, but for Houston, right? I just don’t think Houston has abs zoning and Houston still sprawling. And I think there are a few things here. The first is Houston made basically every other planning mistake that they could’ve made in the 20th century, right? The urban, the giant freeways, the lax, environmental regulation, et cetera, et cetera, as noting, I think is the one big mistake they didn’t make, which I think is key to keeping metropolitan Houston, one of the most affordable universities in the country. But I think you’re exactly right, that what I’m arguing for in the book is not so much abolished zoning. And we enter the promise land. What I’m arguing for in the book is deal with it, set up setting rules. And then we can get along with the process of thinking of what we want land use planning to do, where our planning capacity is best allocated.
Nolan Gray (11m 24s):
And I offer a bunch of ideas about that in the book.
Jeff Wood (11m 26s):
We’ll get to that in a bit. I think another interesting thing is like, there’s a lot of like technologists that want to put kind of a rational order on things and replace the messiness of cities. Yet you really talk about how zoning codes with the original version of coding and cleaning up the rough edges. So do you see like a similarity between now and then in terms of how technologists want to make their stamp on cities versus how people at the time wanted to do the same?
Nolan Gray (11m 51s):
You know, that’s a really great comparison and I, I don’t think I drew that connection nearly as clearly as you have, certainly there’s this notion among the early zoning framers and this would have been late in the progressive era. And of course that’s what I say progressive or I mean a very particular time and place not progressive as larger as we understand today, but you have this notion of let’s get the smartest people in the room. Cities are a technical problem. Let’s get the smartest people in the room, a bunch of engineers, a bunch of attorneys. And we will sit down and come up with a plan for what land use is going to be allowed on every single lot and at what density for the next 50 or so years. Right. And I think that this is just a basic misunderstanding of how cities work and a basic misunderstanding of how uses casually intermingle over time.
Nolan Gray (12m 33s):
And there’s a conversation that has to happen over how densities gradually evolve densities will gradually respond to the infrastructure investments that cities make. And I certainly think we still see echoes of that today, of course, that, you know, that hit its highs in the middle of the 20th century, where we were just completely demolishing cities with this notion that we can remake them pursuant to these grand visions. And of course, I think the results of that for the most part speak for themselves. And we spent the past 50 years correcting those mistakes, but certainly you still see that today in a lot of discourse, this idea that cities are just a technical problem. And if we just get the right rules and if we just get the right infrastructure built, a lot of these problems go away. I think cities are these. They are spontaneous orders. They’re emergent orders that have to be able to adapt over time.
Nolan Gray (13m 15s):
And to the extent that you try to put those in a straight jacket, I think the more they get dysfunctional that’s I think what really has happened in some of these places like San Francisco or where I live now in Los Angeles, where we basically put Los Angeles in a straight jacket for a hundred years. And after a hundred years of trying to engage in, you know, having policies like our one zoning or not allowing additional density to be added along corridors or near transit investments, we’ve reached a state of just such extreme dysfunction that it’s hard to ignore zoning. And that’s why I think in a certain sense it’s such a boring issue, right? I always joke like zoning was you disagree and you’re listening to probably disagree, but yeah, it’s only, what’s this thing where it’s like, if you wanted to politely exit a conversation, just bring up zoning and the other person will have to use the restroom or refill their drink.
Nolan Gray (13m 59s):
And now people are really interested in it. And I think it’s because walking in boring though, it may be there’s a growing appreciation that okay, fixing this is actually a prerequisite to fixing a whole bunch of other problems and planning. And, and just socially in general,
Jeff Wood (14m 13s):
You mentioned the gradual change that happened over time in cities, before zoning. You know, I was actually kind of radicalized myself when I read zoned out by Jonathan Levine, which you mentioned in the appendix as well. And just to start contrast between him discussing San Jose and how it grew up in basically, you know, mowing down fruit trees and all that stuff versus a place like Greece, where generationally, you build a one story house and then, you know, if somebody in your family needs a place to stay, you build it up to two stories and then you go to three and then you have this organic change over time that fits the needs of a community rather than this really stayed and kind of stodgy zoning code that doesn’t address change over time. And it doesn’t address needs over time. And I think that’s really interesting part too, is how zoning has kind of made us a stagnant to a certain extent versus maybe other regimes or, or ways of planning for the future.
Nolan Gray (14m 60s):
Yeah, absolutely. I mean, there’s this great Jane Jacobs quote, right? The cities are at their best when everybody’s playing a role in building them. Right. And I think there’s a, a superficial way to interpret that if like, okay, let’s just do more public hearings and just kind of let an unrepresentative assemblage of people yell at planters. I then I think there’s a deeper way to understand that, which is exactly what I think you’re getting at, which is cities. You have to be running millions of small experiments, right? Maybe people add that additional floor. Maybe they add that accessory dwelling unit. Maybe someone turns their garage into a small little ice cream shop, right? These are the type of experiments that allow people to iterate over what exists today that get us a mini cases, the neighborhoods that we all love. Right. I always stress this point when I’m trying to get a local policymaker on board with zoning reform, I’ll say, you know, usually can point to some great neighborhoods, some great inner suburbs.
Nolan Gray (15m 46s):
It was built in like 19 teens, right before zoning. And there’ll be this nice little mix of mansions and duplexes and small apartment buildings with a corner grocery and corner doctors. And it has some of the highest home prices in the city, inevitably, and everybody wants to live there. And you just have to say, yeah, that neighborhood is illegal to build today. Or it’s illegal to make the existing neighborhoods we have today, more like that neighborhood. And that’s what I think they start to get it right. When I go into these conversations, talking about, you know, God forbid, floor area ratios, or setbacks or parking requirements that is all just abstract. It makes no sense to the average person. God bless him. But when you can point to something and say, Hey, we used to build neighborhoods like this. We used to allow people to run these small experiments and it wasn’t perfect and it was messy.
Nolan Gray (16m 30s):
And you had to have rules regulating how the behavior of one neighborhood affected another neighbor. And that’s all going to be complicated and that’s a political process, but at least we had some framework for building these types of neighborhoods. We’ve taken that away. And I think, you know, I think there’s a deep unhappiness with the type of development that we get as a result.
Jeff Wood (16m 45s):
My street used to be a streetcar street and it was a one-way couplet with another street next to us. And because of that, you get these old pictures SFMTA took because they wanted to take pictures of all their, their transit lines. And you see on my street, all these little kids, you know, waving at the camera, cause that was novel at the time in like 1912 or so. And there was a school on the corner, there was a two day, two doors down from me, looked like a shop. I don’t know what kind of shop it was, but it would look like a shop. Now it’s just a house and you have, you know, a building of the street, that’s probably 2030 units and you have buildings down the street that are duplexes, as well as single family homes. It’s a really interesting mix. Like you mentioned of places. And the first houses I think on this street were like 1875 or so. So it was before that time period when zoning kind of wrecked cities to a certain extent re I used Rex in a general sense, I guess, but you know, it’s interesting to think about that mix and I’m always fascinated by that as well.
Jeff Wood (17m 36s):
Another question I have for you is how much is zoning kind of now about extraction right now, for example, in California, there’s a lot of like affordable housers that don’t want to get rid of like things like parking requirements, because then they can use it as leverage and developer. And there’s a lot of other things that people are trying to extract out of people rather than trying to just build.
Nolan Gray (17m 56s):
Yeah. Well, at the outset, I would just say negotiating for affordable housing by keeping parking requirements high is, is like negotiating with a gun to your own head or to your own name, right? It’s saying, if you don’t do this good thing that we want, we’re going to make you do this bad thing that just makes our city worse and more inequitable and more unpleasant. So, you know, I think that’s the wrong approach. We just looked at the transit oriented communities initiative here in Los Angeles where essentially developers were offered, yes, some zoning relief to build mixed income housing near transit. But what they actually seem to really value was the expedited permitting, right? The expedited permitting was key. You could get your permits much quicker and with much more certainty, alternatively, you can actually just have to put your money where your mouth is, right.
Nolan Gray (18m 40s):
Provide incentives to incorporate these units, provide additional incentives and additional sweeteners to encourage these units. I think, you know, keeping this extremely bad in an equitable and fundamentally broken system in place because we can negotiate away the worst elements of it to get small, good things on the margins, I think is very shortsighted and it’s not going to get us the type of cities that we want in any case. Many people will just say, okay, great. Like I don’t want to negotiate a way the parking requirements, I’ll just build a giant parking garage and we’ll get no affordable housing. Right. That’s the worst case scenario. And that’s probably the model scenario in a lot of these cases. It’s not that people are like, yeah, I’m so desperate to get rid of my parking requirements that I’ll build you some units. It’s like, sure, whatever. Also, you know, the developers also getting pressure from their, from the banker to build this parking, right.
Nolan Gray (19m 23s):
They know that building the parking is going to increase very slightly, the rents that they can charge for the units. So they’ll just build this, right. They’ll just build the units. And in any case too, I would just add on this very quickly, they studied what happened in San Diego when San Diego removes a lot of these parking requirements near transit. And actually one of the biggest beneficiaries of it was developers building 100% income restricted units, right? Because those income restricted units are the projects where it’s actually really valuable to not have these parking mandates. So this notion that we need to keep beds zoning in place. So we have some leverage over developers, I think is very short-sighted. And it’s not really when we liberalize some of these rules, it doesn’t actually get us the results that the doomsayers say are going to happen.
Jeff Wood (20m 3s):
One of the other arguments in the book is about just general agglomeration economies and how productive cities are, especially these kind of larger. I hate to call them superstar cities, but you know what I’m talking about, just kind of the San Franciscos, the new Yorks and the places that have really high housing prices at the moment, but also very, very productive in the book. You also mentioned like Meridian and she found that annual wage loss is due to zoning restrictions in productive cities. We’re at like $1.6 trillion. How are we continuing to let this happen? When we have these productive spaces, these, these energy efficient spaces in places like San Francisco. I mean, right now, outside my door, it’s probably like 65 outside. And maybe in, in central valley, it’s probably a hundred something. Why do we keep continuing to do this? When we know that we need people to move into these places for a economic productivity, but be concerns as well.
Nolan Gray (20m 49s):
I think there’s a fundamental mismatch here, right? Of the effects of the policy and who gets actually determined the policy. Right? So local zoning rules are completely at the whim for the most part of local governments. And even within that, they’re really at the whim of the type of person who shows up at a, at a public hearing. So the broader environmental and economic costs of some of these rules. Yeah, like extremely strict zoning in San Francisco and Los Angeles and Boston and New York makes the everything’s higher country poor and less innovative. They of course, forces people to move to places where their energy consumption is going to have to increase dramatically. But the individual person showing up at the public hearing in those cities doesn’t really deal with those costs, the entirety of those costs, right?
Nolan Gray (21m 30s):
So they have a concentrated benefit in restricting the supply in that particular place. If they’re an incumbent property owner, and of course they don’t necessarily feel all of these downstream costs that are gonna affect everyone else. And I think this is actually the argument for much more state involvement and even some more national involvement in reforming zoning codes, right? Housing markets work at a metropolitan level. This notion that in here in Los Angeles, we should have hundreds of different political entities, completely determining their own land, use planning rules, independent of each other. It’s crazy. It’s not how we do transportation planning. By the way, we recognize that we need a large metropolitan role in transportation planning. I think we need to get to a similar place with land use, where we say, Hey, suburb, doesn’t make land use decisions in a vacuum.
Nolan Gray (22m 12s):
Those decisions affect all of their neighbors and those decisions get you potentially patterns of segregation or patterns of high housing costs or patterns of growth that happens in an unsustainable and sprawling way, right? So you need more metropolitan coordination. State governments, I think have an important role to play in putting guard rails around what local governments can do to force them to consider some of the broader costs of these behaviors and the national government as well. You know, I don’t think we’re ever going to move to a Japanese style or a French style zoning system where the national government actually lists out the zoning districts that can be mapped and leaves local governments with relatively less leeway. But we can do things on the margins that say, Hey, if you want to be eligible for discretionary funds for community development block grants, if you want to be eligible for surface transportation grants, if you want to be eligible for transit funding, we want to see a plan to remove some of these barriers to the type of growth that builds equitable, affordable, sustainable cities.
Jeff Wood (23m 7s):
It’s interesting. Those those countries you mentioned are, are basically the size of states in the United States. I mean, Frances kind of often a analogous to Texas in terms of size and scope, which is interesting. Cause you know, we have many states and you can do that at that level. And it doesn’t have maybe, maybe not necessarily need the national level to step in, but then you also get, you know, differences in every single state that might kind of cause concern. And it makes it maybe harder for developers to go kind of hop from place to place in order to do more, rather than specialize in a specific place, although it would be better to specialize in a state than it would be to specialize in a city, which is, I think a lot of what happens now.
Nolan Gray (23m 41s):
Absolutely. Yeah. I think this is an underrated, dysfunctional quality of zoning, right? But every single city writes its own zoning code, completely Denovo. So it’s very hard to have these larger markets where somebody can just go in and build housing maybe in a city where they don’t currently live. What you end up having to do is you have to lawyer up, you have to hire a local planner. You have to figure out who the local elected official is. You have to talk to. So you get the system it’s very fragmented and very, just difficult to navigate, but absolutely you can have states. I think this would be a huge step in the right direction to have state governments say, okay, like here are the zoning districts that you can map, right. And we’ll leave it up to the discretion of local planners too, to map that here, we’re going to be the broad rules. This is what our one is going to look like in the entire state of California.
Nolan Gray (24m 23s):
I think that would be, that would be a huge step in the right direction.
Jeff Wood (24m 26s):
When did local control becomes such a kind of a rallying cry? Was it just, was it at the initial enactment of zoning or is it kind of something that’s newer?
Nolan Gray (24m 35s):
That’s a really interesting question. My sense is that local control rhetoric starts to become more prominent when school desegregation starts to come into effect. That’s just my sense. I mean, this is an entire field of research, I think within the policy area, but my sense would be that suburbs started to place a lot more emphasis on local control when the Supreme court mandated school desegregation and you get a lot of municipal, extreme municipal fragmentation in the two decades after that. And then of course, all of these local governments adopting codes that make it very, very hard to build certain types of housing. I would assume that that tracks broadly with that historical tradition, but I’d be curious to look more into it.
Jeff Wood (25m 12s):
You have some solutions too, which I find very fascinating, you know, abolish single family zoning, reduced parking requirements, simplified zoning districts. How did you come up with the solutions to this kind of enormous problem?
Nolan Gray (25m 24s):
Yeah, I would say I came up with the solutions. I think this is a really exciting, exciting policy space to be in. And a lot of these things are happening right now. So, you know, I, in the chapter where I talk about reforming zoning, I really wanted to pick out what I thought were some of the most exciting things happening right now and where there’s the lowest hanging fruit, right? So, you know, even if you’re not fully on board with this project of let’s scrap zoning and hit the reset button on ladies’ planning at a minimum, I think we can get buy in for getting rid of policies like single family zoning, which from their origins in Berkeley were explicitly segregationist. Or we can get rid of policies like minimum parking requirements, which essentially legally presumed that everyone will always drive everywhere. This is very low hanging fruit and it’s already happening in cities all across the country.
Nolan Gray (26m 5s):
You know, I think in the conversations about land use reform, we tend to talk about California. Are we talking about the Northeast there’s exciting stuff happening all over the country and in places where we don’t even think of as traditionally having a housing affordability crisis. Right. So I highlight some of the accessory dwelling unit, for instance, that are coming online in the Midwest or some of the stuff happening in the south where cities are scrapping from parking requirements. So yeah, I didn’t come up with the stuff you had policy innovators like Donald Trump, basically working on these issues for decades. And I think now we’re just finally starting to see the fruits of that.
Jeff Wood (26m 34s):
You also have a, I guess a couple of days ago, Charlotte voted to change their unified development code and get rid of single family zoning throughout the city, which was really interesting, especially coming from a city in the south like Charlotte, obviously it’s a, it’s a liberal city in, in, in kind of a purple state, but it’s interesting to see that happening at that level. And you have places like Minneapolis too, et cetera, the state of Oregon, there’s lots of stuff going on. It’s amazing. Another interesting thing that I think was brought up in the book, and I think that’s been kind of discussed lately is, is this result of zoning that creates a buffer zones and the idea that you put apartments next to the major highways or the major, the roads, and then you protect single family zoning at, or single-family houses at all costs. I’m curious what the discussion has been around that over the last year or so, because it’s been interesting to see kind of articles and people start to talk about this subject, whereas it wasn’t really discussed much outside of smaller groups before.
Nolan Gray (27m 23s):
Yeah, well, so the entire zoning system that we have today is optimized around protecting the detached single family homes of the wealthiest people in any given city pure and simple. I mean that you can read the early materials outside of unusual context, like New York city, early zoning discussions were always about this. We need to protect the detached single family homes and this elite neighborhood from the incursions of apartments, which of course justice Sutherland refers to as, as mere PEs in the Euclid, the Ambler decision or any sort of commercial use. And it’s funny too, because even when you read the types of commercial uses that they’re fretting about, they will say stuff like Chinese laundries or dance halls that are bringing African-American residents into the neighborhood, right? So even these elements of zoning that seem reasonable with modern eyes have these very unsavory origins.
Nolan Gray (28m 8s):
I think an element of this that’s recently come to, to the forefront is this use of more affordable housing type policies to buffer those single family homes from nuisances. Right? So this is, I think a point that I try to make in the book zoning doesn’t really solve these incompatible neighbor issues by actually regulating the impacts or separating uses in a, in a, in a coherent way. But in many cases it puts the most housing in the worst possible places. Right? So exactly to your point, there’s this best practice and zoning of, oh yeah. Most of the housing should go along the, the loud, noisy corridors or next to the freeway or, oh, the, the busy boisterous commercial district should be buffered by multi-family housing.
Nolan Gray (28m 49s):
Literally putting people in the places where from a pure impacts perspective, it’s probably the worst place we could put them. And that still happens today. Of course, here in California, we’re engaged in the regional housing needs assessment process where we basically say to local governments, okay. Based on certain population indicators and economic indicators, we want to see a plan to allow for at least so much housing, identify the sites where you’re going to put that housing and you crack these things open and cities regularly are taking extremely marginal land in many cases, right next to freeways or next to industrial uses and saying, we’re going to put all of our affordable housing here. And of course that raises major equity issues that raises it raises significant environmental justice issues, but that’s just zoning best practice.
Nolan Gray (29m 29s):
Right. And I think that is very revealing about the purpose of this broader system, right? As I, as I raised the purpose of the system is to protect the investments, detached single family homes of the risk of people in the community. And shouldn’t be surprised when the zoning system continues to do stuff like this, even after we’ve had these huge national discussions about the need for environmental equity, racial equity and how we plan cities
Jeff Wood (29m 51s):
Every time I see one of these crazy layouts or, or just how zoning kind of impacts people and property owners and people just trying to do something with their own land, especially here in San Francisco, whether it’s a laundromat or whatever else with shadows and all that stuff, I always feel like it’s a taking. And I feel like maybe that was the planner in me. That’s like, why are we continuing to allow this to happen? And I’m surprised it hadn’t really been straightened out by now. And I’m curious what keeps people from suing on like say discrimination or, or pollution grounds, or we were just talking about how zoning kind of pushes, you know, dense housing near freeways. And, you know, people always end up with dark suit on their window sills because of brake dust or whatever. And I’m just always surprised that we can’t figure out a way to legally fix this if that’s the way that our system works.
Jeff Wood (30m 34s):
Obviously there’s probably other ways we could do it. But the way that people do mostly now is through the legal system.
Nolan Gray (30m 41s):
Yeah. I mean, I think it, it varies by state. So different state court systems have, I think taken a more or less critical eye of zoning. So for example, in New Jersey, I think the courts are very sophisticated and they know that this is a system of instituting segregation and they put up pretty strong guard rails around how local governments can execute this power. And that’s positive. Other states like New York seems to be very whimsical and significantly less serious here in California. I think we’re making progress on this. Right. So, you know, part of the reason why we’re hearing about a city like Palo Alto or a city like Atherton putting their housing in the worst possible places is because we have this oversight mechanism. And I think that’s all good as a near term solution to this problem to say like, well, okay, yeah, we’re going to like have strict oversight over house and he’s execute on this segregationist policy program.
Nolan Gray (31m 29s):
That’s all great. I would say the deeper solution here is to just completely get rid of the system, right? Like as long as cities have this power to use public regulation, to enrich certain interest groups and to Institute citywide racial and class based segregation to force cities to take this sprawling auto into form, I think there probably will. I absolutely, in the near term, I think it makes sense for activists to say, let’s put up guardrails around it. Let’s allow 80 to use statewide. Let’s have regional fair share mechanisms. Let’s get rid of the parking requirements. That’s all great. I think that’s actually where we should be focusing our energies in the near term. But I think in the longer term, if we just deal with the symptoms and don’t deal with the underlying problem, the system that actually allows cities to engage in this behavior, we’re just going to be playing preemption whack-a-mole right for another 20 or 30 years.
Nolan Gray (32m 12s):
And then the moment we stopped doing that, the system’s just going to go back to what it once was. And so I think this is why we really need this deeper conversation about what we want land use plans to do. And what alternative systems might look like because fixing the status quo is going to involve something I think much deeper than just dealing with symptoms.
Jeff Wood (32m 27s):
I like those, the solutions you’re talking about, the example you gave in the book backdrop, right? So being able to do things that are not necessarily land use planning, but you know, figuring out where the streets should go and how the block system should work. And I think that’s historically how planning worked and how people were actually putting together cities is they would decide how the street networks were put out and they were decided other things, but they weren’t necessarily, you know, decide deciding what uses would go where so more solutions. I think that it’s interesting that you focus on Houston and the idea that they had several referendums, but also deed restrictions. I’m curious how that works out in the long-term.
Nolan Gray (33m 1s):
Yeah. So Houston of course, as unique as the one major American city that doesn’t have zoning. And I think the evidence suggests that the reason they don’t have zoning, is there one of the few, I think the only major American city that actually put zoning to a referendum failed three times most recently in 1993, the demographics of that are extremely telling right. Working class Houstonians, I think had a very clear sense of what the system was trying to do and voted against it. But so Houston is unique, right? So I think as I argue in the book, I think one of the reasons why Houston didn’t end up with zoning is that a lot of the core constituencies for zoning, namely upper middle-class and upper-class homeowners had alternative mechanisms for getting something like our one zoning, if they wanted it. But then that mechanism didn’t allow them to dictate everything that happened within a quarter mile of their home.
Nolan Gray (33m 45s):
Right? So I framed deed restrictions as this compromise that allowed Houston to say, okay, the people with the most extreme ladies’ preferences who otherwise would be agitating for zoning, we’ll give you something that looks kind of like zoning. You have to opt into it. You have to play some role in maintenance. It’s not going to be this thing of the government coming in and mapping you are one, but in exchange for that, you’re not going to have a lot of say over what happens outside of your little enclave, right? And so there are certainly areas in Houston where you have something that kind of sorta looks like Arwin zoning, but then the vast majority of the city, it’s very easy to take a single family home and turn it into three townhouses. It’s very easy to take a strip mall and turn it into a five of the one with apologies to the single stair people. You know, it’s very easy to like do these things, a natural, healthy growing city can and should be doing.
Nolan Gray (34m 28s):
And as I stressed earlier, for all of Houston’s other planning mistakes, I think this is one highly consequential mistake that they didn’t make. And it’s not an accident that Houston is one of the most affordable and diverse cities in the country. It’s not an accident that working class families move from Los Angeles to a city like Houston. I think there are some planners who are very, very dismissive of the cities that are absorbing all of these working in middle-class Americans. They all, Sunbelt’s just sprawl. It’s just, you know, it’s, it’s terrible, blah, blah, blah. People are moving to those cities. Right. And they’re th they’re moving to the cities because those are the only places that are building housing essentially for the last 50 years. And so I think, you know, we have a lot to learn from some of the mechanisms and regulatory compromises that have been made in a place like Houston.
Jeff Wood (35m 7s):
I highly recommend people go and look at, you know, Google earth has the aerial photos. And if you go look at historically at the inside of this extended loop, then versus now, it’s really interesting to see what’s happened. Not necessarily out where I grew up, it’s just continuing to sprawl outwards and outwards, but inside the loop and even maybe just outside of it in the Heights and places like that, it’s, it’s really interesting to see kind of how that’s changed over time. And even when I go back now, I’m just like dumbfounded by the amount of change that’s actually happened in the city. Another interesting thing that you mentioned is, you know, obviously you talked about nuisance and, and figuring out, you know, let’s say we had a referendum, we have some deed restrictions, but then you also have to deal with some of these nuisance issues. And I’m curious about this because maybe a couple of weeks ago, there was actually a piece in Nashville scene about some like complaints that code, you know, code enforcement, as well as other, you know, nosy neighbors were making about their neighbors.
Jeff Wood (35m 54s):
There’s this weird code court and people can get pulled in and have to pay these fines. And it seems like a way for people to harass each other. And so I’m curious how you kind of set up a system that allows people to, you know, deal with nuisances, but then not allow it to become something that ended up what was happening in Nashville, which is this crazy kind of kangaroo court kind of thing, which actually ends up hurting poor people and people who are just sitting in their yard and doing nothing.
Nolan Gray (36m 18s):
Yeah, no, absolutely. I mean, I think as I argue in the book, I think a better way to deal with issues like, and compatibility among neighbors is to actually regulate the specific things that people care about and play a proactive role in regulating it and ideally move away from this complaint based system that exists in many cities today. Right? Cause I think exactly the devil really isn’t in the details on getting the right nuisance regulations in place. And it’s a political project and people are going to have different views on how much noise they think is appropriate or what types of law and, and home maintenance is appropriate or inappropriate. That’s a political problem. And of course, inequities come into that and we have to be thoughtful about it, but at least that’s centering the conversation around the actual impacts rather than saying, well, we’re just not gonna allow commercial in this area because it could be a noisy bar, even though the applicant’s proposing to build like an ice cream shop, right.
Nolan Gray (37m 8s):
Or, oh, we’re not going to allow multi-family in this neighborhood because the neighbors could be noisy and they might not maintain their property. This is another element where I think we need to be having more conversations about this and how to actually get these systems. Right. And so much of our current capacity is wasted trying to, I think, tinker on the margins with zoning, when we could be saying, let’s have these thoughtful conversations about what it would look like to have rules that equitably deal with the impacts that people care about.
Jeff Wood (37m 31s):
I found the referendum idea intriguing, and I almost thought, you know, maybe it’s something that some city in the country should actually have. They should just have a referendum actually. You know, in the, in California we have the, the ballot measure process. Whereas some crazy rich person can actually just get something on the ballot pretty easily by buying signatures, which is frustrating. And it makes our voting really ridiculously long. But also like, you know, what, if we just voted on zoning and a couple of cities, what would happen? What do you think would happen?
Nolan Gray (37m 56s):
You don’t like voting on dialysis centers every, every two years,
Jeff Wood (38m 1s):
Every two years, no. And DaVita and w whoever, what is the other one? I don’t know, but the nurses association or whatever it is, no, I know too much about dialysis now. I mean, I do care that people get their treatment, but all the extraneous stuff seems ridiculous for us to vote on.
Nolan Gray (38m 15s):
Right. Yeah. I mean, I think we’re referring to, could create a lot of value is in contexts where new municipalities are incorporating and they want to adopt zoning for the first time. Right. So they want to enforce the zoning code where nothing previously exists. I think absolutely at a minimum, there should be a referendum there to say, right? This is a, this is an incredibly complex and onerous systems of rules that you be imposing on a city. Right. And I think actually you should go out and ask like, Hey, do we want this right? Here’s what the zoning map is going to look like. Here’s what the zoning ordinance is going to look like. This is what it’s going to mean for, for your property and for your neighborhood. I think it’s kind of crazy that we adopted a lot of these systems without doing any sort of referendum like that. So I think that’s totally appropriate. I think actually, you know, we have to do a little bit of groundwork before we get to that place in cities that currently have zoning.
Nolan Gray (39m 1s):
I think you have to convince people that no, we are going to be dealing with the impacts of new growth. We are going to be improving infrastructure commensurate to growth. And I think once you build a little bit of that trust, then I think people start to say, okay, actually we don’t really need this legacy system. That’s just segregating uses and arbitrarily Katherine densities, but in existing cities, I think you have to do a little bit more legwork to get there.
Jeff Wood (39m 21s):
What’s been the response to the book so far
Nolan Gray (39m 23s):
Overwhelmingly positive, no critiques or disagreements.
Jeff Wood (39m 29s):
Nolan Gray (39m 30s):
No. I mean, jokes aside, you know, I, I think a lot of people are thinking about this issue and I think a lot of people are, are happy to finally have an accessible explanation of what zoning is. You know, I, I used to have people come to me and say like, what do I need to read to understand zoning? And I find myself recommending like zoning for dummies, right? Which, you know, no disrespect to the, for dummies people, but that doesn’t exactly what someone’s appetite for a subject. So, you know, I’ve, there’s been interest in, I think a lot of policymakers, they were looking for accessible explanations of these issues, you know, even among planners, right. I, I found the reception’s pretty good among planners. You know, I worked as a planner. So a lot of the stories that I tell in the book or from my experience working in planning, and I find that a lot of planners know the system is deeply dysfunctional and would prefer to be using all of that incredible planning capacity that many cities have actually building more affordable, more equitable, more sustainable cities, and it gets wasted doing work related to zoning.
Nolan Gray (40m 22s):
So I found that the reaction is pretty positive. I think people are ready for something new. And, you know, I think in the near term, of course reform is probably the right path here. But I think in the longer term, it’s incumbent on people in this space and the planning space broadly to be thinking what comes after zoning.
Jeff Wood (40m 37s):
Awesome. Well, the book is arbitrary lines. How zoning broke the American city and how to fix it, where can folks find it? If they want a copy?
Nolan Gray (40m 43s):
I always recommend try to grab a copy at your local bookstore. They can order it for you. Of course you can order it directly from island press and then [email protected] or Amazon. You can also request a copy at your local library.
Jeff Wood (40m 55s):
It just got a second printing. Is that correct?
Nolan Gray (40m 58s):
That’s right. We’re going into a second printing.
Jeff Wood (40m 59s):
Yeah, that’s awesome. Congratulations. Thank you. Very popular book, very popular subject. I must say reading it as a planner, myself, somebody going to planning school, I really did appreciate the simplicity of it. I really appreciate the explanation of it even, you know, like I said, as somebody who is deep in this almost every day, probably not as deep as you in zoning, but you know, just cities generally. I really appreciated the simplicity and the ease of the reading it as well. Sometimes it’s hard to get through some of the books that we process. So I appreciate that as well.
Nolan Gray (41m 25s):
I appreciate that. Yeah. I wanted to produce something that I think would be accessible to the lay person who doesn’t think about zoning all day and is living a happy normal life. So hopefully this is the closest thing we’ll get to as zoning be treat.
Jeff Wood (41m 35s):
Are those of us this think about zoning all day, not living happy normal lives. Maybe we’re not. Well, no one. Thanks for joining us. We really appreciate your time.
Nolan Gray (41m 43s):
Thanks So much.