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Zoning Ourselves to Death

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"Zoning Ourselves to Death"

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One thing we could do as a country that could help reduce carbon emissions in a relatively pain-free way would be to ease regulations around what you’re allowed to build where. This would reduce emissions because people living in high-density areas tend to drive less and have lower home energy usage. It would be relatively pain free because we wouldn’t be talking about taking people’s cars away or forcing anyone to live in densely built cities who doesn’t want to. Instead, we’d be talking about letting people build denser structures if they can find people who want to live inside them.

If you go up to the Columbia Heights Metro station and then walk east just a block east you’ll be struck by the hard transition from the large-for-DC new apartments on 14th street and the low density structures right around them. What’s going on, you’ll wonder. What’s happened, simply put, is that you’ve moved out of an area zoned C-2-B and into an area zoned R-4. In R-4 areas, (including almost everything north of Euclid between 14th Street and Georgia Ave, pretty much the entire square between P, U, 14th, and 7th and many other parts of the city) you can’t build a house taller than 3 stories (or 40 feet), you can’t occupy more than 60 percent of your lot, and you can’t build apartments smaller than 900 square feet per bedroom.

As a result, even though these places have become much more desirable places to live, they simply aren’t allowed to accommodate very many additional residents. Instead of seeing new, denser construction to allow more and more people to live where they’d like, we see zero sum battles over “gentrification” as working class residents can’t afford new, higher rents. Meanwhile, the central city’s inability to accommodate all the people who’d like to live there puts enormous price pressure on the closer-in suburbs, pushing people who want the suburban lifestyle ever-further from the city center in search of affordable housing.

It’s not clear to me what the federal government can really do about this since zoning is handled very, very locally in America. Maybe there’s some way to create incentives for cities and inner suburbs to deregulate? I’m not sure. But it would be a good idea. If you took any particular restrictively zoned neighborhood and deregulated it, the resulting changes and dislocations might be very bothersome to people. But if you did it systematically, the impact in most places would probably be reasonably light and at the end of the process almost everyone would be better off — you’d still be able to find housing in low-density areas if you wanted it, and you’d be closer to stuff than people who live in fringe exurbs are these days.

At any rate, as I was working away on this post I saw that Virginia Postrel has an Atlantic column on much the same subject, though she eventually veers off in a different direction from where I would have gone.

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