Contrary to what Californians think, there is nothing sacred about houses.
California has a problem. It refuses to build enough housing for its growing population, and has been refusing to do so for decades. San Mateo County, for example, has allowed one house to be built, on average, for every 19 jobs added in the county. Though the magnitude of San Mateo County’s imbalance is comparatively extreme, it’s not unique. The Bay Area is practically unlivable, with residents now renting bunk beds – bunk beds – for more than $1000/month, which is what you would expect to happen in an area with rapid job growth and almost no housing growth for four decades.
Sound familiar, Reno?
Well… That’s not entirely fair. Reno, Sparks, and Washoe County are allowing quite a bit of housing to be constructed, as a quick trip to Verdi (just west of Reno) or downtown Sparks will reveal. However, there is one unfortunate habit that Reno has picked up from our neighbors to the west, and it’s a habit Clark County suffers from as well.
We’re addicted to single-family zoning.
Take Clark County, for example. Despite containing as many people as Las Vegas and Henderson put together, the vast majority of residential properties in the county are zoned exclusively for single family housing — houses, in other words. Likewise, roughly two-thirds of all residential properties in the Truckee Meadows (Reno, Sparks, and most of the inhabited portions of Washoe County, in other words) are similarly zoned.
What’s wrong with that?
Let’s say you want to build more housing in an area. You have three choices: Up, out, or through. Through means taking an existing house and dividing it into smaller units, perhaps by converting the first and second floors of a large house into two apartments. With single-family zoning in place, however, that’s illegal — only one family’s worth of housing is allowed per plot — so that’s out of the question. Up, meanwhile, means tearing down an existing house and replacing it with an apartment complex, or a condominium, or perhaps a set of townhomes; again, with single family zoning in place, this is also illegal. That means the only way to build more housing is out — into the suburbs and exurbs, where roads and utilities aren’t already in place.
What happens when you run out of “out?” Ask the Bay Area.
Take San Jose, for example, which has an astonishing 94 percent of its residential property zoned for single-family housing. Ordinarily, in a market as blindingly expensive as San Jose’s, with all of the jobs in Silicon Valley, existing property owners would demolish some of the houses and convert them into apartment complexes and condos, which would more comfortably contain the number of workers in San Jose. What’s happened instead is houses are rented bedroom-by-bedroom, with “single family” houses containing three, four, or five families, one in each bedroom.
The good news? Just because California sets a bad example, we don’t have to follow them. There are, after all, 48 other examples we can draw from.
Take Minnesota, for example. Recently, Minneapolis outright abolished single-family zoning. This doesn’t mean every house in Minneapolis is illegal and must be replaced with an apartment complex, nor does it mean that new houses are no longer allowed to be built. All it means is that if somebody chooses to tear down a house and replace it with a duplex, apartment complex, or condominium complex, they now have the legal right to do so. Meanwhile, to prevent the sort of protracted legal battles that have surrounded redevelopment efforts in the Bay Area, Minnesota has a state law on the books that requires local planning commissions to process all development applications, with a written approval or rejection, within 60 days.
Reno’s planning process is… a bit less prompt.
Additionally, from a philosophical standpoint, single family zoning is an unacceptable, government-forced restriction on private property rights, one frequently used to bake in past segregation. Sure, you shouldn’t have the right to start, say, a fat renderer or a chemical weapons plant or some other industrial operation that could directly harm the health of your neighbors upwind. Outside of that, however, your aesthetic sensibilities are just opinions, nothing more, and should be treated just as seriously as any other opinion. If somebody is building something you don’t like across the street, you have two options: Buy the lot yourself or mind your own business.
Put another way, can you legally prevent me from getting this article published? Then why should you have the right to legally prevent someone from exercising their opinion over their own property? I don’t even own this column, yet I have more rights over what belongs here than single-family zoning property owners have over their own property. How does that make sense?
Enough is enough.
Single-family zoning and the overheated, obnoxious arguments used to justify it — including this one, comparing single-family zoning to Native American treaties — need to stop. We didn’t need single family zoning in the 19th century; we never should have adopted it in the 20th century; and it’s time we abolished it in this century.
If we want affordable housing, our best bet is to do what Minnesota is doing — require local governments to process building permits in a timely fashion and abolish single-family zoning.
David Colborne has been active in the Libertarian Party for two decades. During that time, he has blogged intermittently on his personal blog, as well as the Libertarian Party of Nevada blog, and ran for office twice as a Libertarian candidate. He serves on the Executive Committee for both his state and county Libertarian Party chapters. He is the father of two sons and an IT professional. You can follow him on Twitter @DavidColborne or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.