David Schleicher on City Unplanning

Josh Wright —  7 March 2012

Forbes interviews my colleague and office neighbor David Schleicher on his new and very interesting paper, City Unplanning.  This paper continues Schleicher’s interesting line of research on the law and economics of cities with a creative and powerful analysis of the political economy of zoning in big cites.

Here’s a brief snippet from the start of the interview:

For starters, how about a brief rundown of your story of why housing in major cities is so expensive.

Generations of scholars assumed that, while exclusive suburbs use zoning rules to limit development to keep people out and to increase the average value of housing, big cities don’t do that kind of thing because they are run by “growth machines” or ever more powerful coalitions of developers and the politicians who love them.

But in fact for most of the Twentieth Century, when urban housing prices went up, people starting building housing and prices went down. But, at some point, this broke down.

In a number of big cities, new housing starts seem uncorrelated or only weakly correlated with housing prices and the result of increasing demand while holding supply steady is that price went up fast. The average cost of a Manhattan apartment is now over $1.4 million and the average monthly rent is over $3,300.

The only explanation is that zoning rules stop supply from increasing in the face of rising demand. (In case you are wondering, this not a bubble phenomenon—this happened in many cities before the housing bubble, and the behavior of housing markets during and after the crisis is completely consistent with a story about big city housing supply constraints.)  And it’s not like real estate developers suddenly became political weaklings. What gives?

The key to my story is that urban legislatures don’t have competitive local parties—we don’t see big city legislatures divided between Republicans and Democrats, each trying to create a localized brand for competence on local issues. Instead, most local legislatures are either non-partisan or dominated by one party.

As a result, there is no one with the power and incentives to strike deals between legislators in order to promote things that are good for people across the city. And there is no one to decide the order in which issues are decides, which matters when legislative preferences “cycle,” or there are majorities that prefer a to b, b to c, and c to a.

The result of the lack of competitive local parties is that procedural rules matter a lot—they set the voting order, which can determine the outcome.

Part II of the interview is available here.  The abstract is here:

Generations of scholarship on the political economy of zoning have tried to explain a world in which tony suburbs run by effective homeowner lobbies use zoning to keep out development, but big cities allow relatively untrammeled growth because of the political influence of developers. Further, this literature has assumed that, while zoning restrictions can cause “micro-misallocations” inside a metropolitan region, they cannot increase housing prices throughout a region because some of the many local governments in a region will allow development. But these theories have been overtaken by events. Over the past few decades, land use restrictions have driven up housing prices in the nation’s richest and most productive regions, resulting in massive changes in where in America people live and reducing the growth rate of the economy. Further, as demand to live in them has increased, many of the nation’s biggest cities have become responsible for substantial limits on development. Although developers are, in fact, among the most important players in city politics, we have not seen enough growth in the housing supply in many cities to keep prices from skyrocketing.

This paper seeks to explain these changes with a story about big city land use that places the legal regime governing land use decisions at its center. Using the tools of positive political theory, I argue that, in the absence of strong local political parties, land use law sets the voting order in local legislatures, determining policy from potentially cycling preferences. Specifically, these laws create a peculiar procedure, a form of seriatim decision-making in which the intense preferences of local residents opposed to re-zonings are privileged against more weakly-held citywide preferences for an increased housing supply. Without a party leadership to organize deals and whip votes, legislatures cannot easily make deals for generally-beneficial legislation stick. Legislators, who may have preferences for building everywhere to not building anywhere, but stronger preferences for stopping construction in their districts, “defect” as a matter of course and building is restricted everywhere. Further, the seriatim nature of local land use procedure results in a large number of “downzonings,” or reductions in the ability of landowners to build “as of right”, as big developers do not have an incentive to fight these changes. The cost of moving amendments through the land use process means that small developers cannot overcome the burdens imposed by downzonings, thus limiting incremental growth in the housing stock.

Finally, the paper argues that, as land use procedure is the problem, procedural reform may provide a solution. Land use and international trade have similarly situated interest groups. Trade policy was radically changed, from a highly protectionist regime to a largely free trade one, by the introduction of procedural reforms like the Reciprocal Trade Agreements Act, adjustment assistance, and “safeguards” measures. The paper proposes changes to land use procedures that mimic these reforms. These changes would structure voting order and deal-making in local legislatures in a way that would create support for increases in the urban housing supply.