Let the People Build

Andrés Duany is one of the leading New Urbanists; Randal O'Toole is one of New Urbanism's sharpest critics. But when it comes to rebuilding New Orleans, they're singing similar tunes. From O'Toole's blog:

Many of New Orleans' low-income neighborhoods were built decades ago, when building codes were not as strict as they are today. Rebuilding them to meet modern codes will cost far more than their former occupants can afford....

Duany [writing in Metropolis magazine] has a solution: Create an "an experimental 'opt-out zone': areas where one 'contracts out' of the current American system, which consists of the nanny state raising standards to the point where it is so costly and complicated to build that only the state can provide affordable housing."

"For three centuries Americans built for themselves," adds Duany. "They built well enough, so long as it was theirs. Individual responsibility could be trusted. We must return to this as an option."

O'Toole is actually less eager than Duany to deregulate, arguing that "if homes in the opt-out zone do not meet minimum building codes, banks may not be willing to give their owners home equity loans, which are a major source of funds for small businesses. This poses the danger of a two-tier society: one of poor people who can afford minimal housing but have little upward mobility, and one of wealthy people who can afford housing in highly regulated areas." So instead of a two-zone system, O'Toole calls for a more complex arrangement with

* A totally deregulated area, with no building codes, zoning, or other rules;

* An area of the minimal building codes and other regulations needed to get banks to provide mortgages and home equity loans;

* An area with building codes and simple zoning setting maximum densities and some setbacks but no minimum densities and no other design standards;

* A fully regulated area with strict design standards.

These zones would not be oriented around people's incomes but around their desire for order and planning. Perhaps neighborhoods could vote on which zone they want to be in.

Update: On a related note, Sanford Ikeda says New Orleans could use a little neighborhood secession.

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  • ||

    Anyone want to bet on which of O'Toole's zones would recover first?

  • ||

    Didn't one of Reason's writers propose deregulation of building codes in New Orleans a year ago?

  • ||

    I agree with the optional deregulation, but one of the problems is that regulation is there only to enhance safety. It is also there to ensure that buildings and property don't become nuisances overnight.

  • ||

    Less regulation is fine, but the pragmatic libertarian in me can at least acknowlege when there's an obvious asymmetric information problem staring me in the face. Given the fact that most folks aren't qualified general contractors and the existence of, you know, externalities (remember those?), getting rid of building codes is way more of an anarcho-capitalist idea than a libertarian one. I think that's pretty obvious, hence the Reynolds style quote and run post.

    Maybe I'm just bitchy from gagging on nostalgia though

  • ||

    "For three centuries Americans built for themselves," adds Duany. "They built well enough, so long as it was theirs. Individual responsibility could be trusted. We must return to this as an option."

    That's a nice sentiment, but most of the housing in New Orleans won't be constructed by Americans building for themselves. The quality of housing constructed for renters during those three centuries wasn't any great shakes.

    Aresen,

    Want to take bets on which zone holds up best in the next hurricaine?

  • ||

    It's also there to keep the riff-raff out. We can't have (dagos/chinks/nigs/wetbacks/micks/etc.) setting up shanty-towns, now can we?

  • ||

    Not that that necessarily has anything to do with New Orleans, but one claim I've heard against immigration is that the Messicans set up slums and ruin land values.

  • ||

    They are selling T-Shirts in New Orleans these days that say "FEMA, Find Every Mexican Available". My guess is that if you had building code free zones, that they would be filled to the gills with Mexican migrant workers. I doubt that would go over too well with the locals. In principle I love the idea, but in reality is it is a terrible one. Yeah, people used to build their own homes, but we also used to have filthy cities where pigs roamed the streets to eat the garbage. I frankly think making my neighbors have in door plumbing is a pretty good idea. Second, people also used to be responsible for themselves. They are not any more. The first time something bad happens in one of these code free areas, guess who will be paying to undo the damage? The taxpayer. No thanks.

  • Gilbert Martin||

    "For three centuries Americans built for themselves," adds Duany. "They built well enough, so long as it was theirs. Individual responsibility could be trusted. We must return to this as an option."

    Uh Huh.

    And part of that past concept of individual responsibilty was that people understood if they built their house in an area that was prone to flooding then they were individually assuming that risk and could not expect that their fellow citizens (via government ) whould be compelled to bail them out if they got flooded out.

    I rather doubt that Duany includes that notion in his definition of individual responsibility.

  • bj||

    Let's deregulate toilet usage. It's my front yard, and I don't want a nanny state telling I can't take a shit in it. And what's this red light/green light garbage? I don't want a nanny state telling me when I can cross an intersection. And what's all this licencing crap for doctors? Why should a nanny state tell me I can't practice medicine just because I don't have any medical training?

  • ||

    Well, considering you can't even get a permit issued within six months AFTER you get a hold of the permitting office there is no way the "regulated" area would recover fastest.

    Now, that having been said, New Orleans has one of the oldest building regulations in the country, that of requiring slate roofs (now amended for other roofing materials) to help prevent a second "great fire" like the one that occurred in 1788.

    Some building codes are safety based, and for the most part I don't have a problem with those where a lapse of safety may endanger a neighbor. Some however are just BS. Hurricane windows (110mph impact resistant) are an excellent example. In many coastal areas they are required by law but the use thereof affects only the homeowner. The homeowner alone should be the one to weigh the cost of the windows vs. other protection techniques and the potential damage to the structure.

  • ||

    My guess is that if you had building code free zones, that they would be filled to the gills with Mexican migrant workers. I doubt that would go over too well with the locals.

    And here I thought I was being rhetorical.

  • Dan T.||

    "For three centuries Americans built for themselves," adds Duany. "They built well enough, so long as it was theirs. Individual responsibility could be trusted. We must return to this as an option."

    Maybe the reason we left this option is because we found it didn't work too well?

    I don't want to be "individually responsible". I want the benefits of civilization.

  • ||

    They are selling T-Shirts in New Orleans these days that say "FEMA, Find Every Mexican Available".


    Could it be because FEMA relocated the vast majority of the poor black community to other cities and they aren't too interested in coming back to work and rebuild the city? Just saying that I'd rather have a migrant Mexican working on my roof for his cash than a local siphoning off the dole.

    For what it's worth, I owned a house in a run down neighborhood for a number of years and every time a new Hispanic household would move in (always renting, never staying more than a year) they would leave the house in much better shape than when they moved in. Hell, the one across the street from me landscaped the whole thing, sod and all. I would kill for a tenant like that.

  • ||

    Remind me again why we (meaning those of us who fund the public fisc) are rebuilding New Orleans?

  • David Rollins||

    The only thing better than Duany's proposal would be if we could also opt out of drug enforcement and taxes. Screw the FSP, NH was always too cold and Nevada should have won in any case.

  • ||

    "For what it's worth, I owned a house in a run down neighborhood for a number of years and every time a new Hispanic household would move in (always renting, never staying more than a year) they would leave the house in much better shape than when they moved in. Hell, the one across the street from me landscaped the whole thing, sod and all. I would kill for a tenant like that."


    For what it is worth, a lot of my family live in small towns in Western Kansas and have a bit different experience with Mexican immigrants. They tend not to be the best tenents. You never can tell. The fact is though that people from different societies sometimes have different standards of sanitation than we do. What is perfectly acceptable for someone from a poor village in Central America is not going to be acceptable to most Americans.

    As far as FEMA deporting the local population, the dirty secret of the whole thing is that Katrina gave a whole bunch of people the chance to get out of a poverty ridden corrupt city and get a new start in better places with more opportunity; in short, it was the best thing that ever happened to some people. When I lived in San Antonio there were a lot of Katrina refugees working various jobs around town and I never met one of them who wasn't happy to be out of New Orleans and had any intention of ever returning.

  • Gilbert Martin||

    "Just saying that I'd rather have a migrant Mexican working on my roof for his cash than a local siphoning off the dole."

    Heh, just wait till the entitlement/victimology/ethnic identity - establishment gets through working it's magic on his offspring. They'll be lounging around on the dole like the rest of them.

  • ||

    "an experimental 'opt-out zone': areas where one 'contracts out' of the current American system

    Sounds like Slab City. Writ large.

  • ||

    I want the beneftis of a civilization populated with indiviually responsible citizens. Shit, that doesn't fit on the bumper sticker.

  • ||

    John,

    FWIW, the sanitary standards displayed by the five of us in my freshman year dorm room did not meet the standards of most Americans.

    Mexican women are famous for sweeping and mopping their floors every single damned day. Not to mention the laundry. I suspect that what you're describing has more to do with unattached young men living in groups than with cultural factors.

  • ||

    Yeah, the issue here is the ability to insure. Absent insurance subsidy, the only structures being built would be done so on a cash basis, which wouldn't amount to many, or, maybe, those that could be insured because of their method on construction. Think of all occupied space being 20 feet or more off the ground, and built to withstand (at a minimum) 200 m.p.h winds. It's doable, but it sure would result in a pretty unique urban environment.

    If I could wave a magic wand, I'd stop issuing any more federal flood insurance policies, and tell the existing policy holders on structurees which were still standing that their policies would be renewable for 40 more years, or until a claim was paid, whichever came first. Then, I'd tell each municipality that they could adopt whatever building codes they desired, except that sewage treatment standards were universal.

  • Sam B||

    I don't understand why splitting people into 4 groups is better than 2. Also, supposing Mr. O'Toole is correct in his assumption that banks wouldn't give loans, his scheme has the same problem where a segment of society will be left with no "upward mobility".
    This being said, his scheme WOULD be an interesting experiment in free-market building (assuming nothing destroys it all again). Imagine if the deregulated zone became an economic powerhouse in a few years?

  • ||

    Perhaps the entire benighted place should be a regulatory 'opt-out' zone. It's not like the business community there is humming along nicely. I agree even as a libertarian that at least some safety codes are a good thing. But it surely doesn't take an army of bureaucrats and regulatory hurdles to enforce a handful of common-sense safety codes.

  • Gilbert Martin||

    Maybe they should zone the whole place as a giant RV park.

    Then before the next hurrican blew into town, all the residents could just drive off and get away from it.

  • ||

    "Want to take bets on which zone holds up best in the next hurricaine?"

    IF the zoning regulators really know how to design a hurricane-proof structure [remember that Kobe, Japan, was supposed to be able to resist an earthquake], and
    IF nobody got variances, and
    IF all the contractors were honest,
    THEN, (and only then) I'd agree that the last zone would probably hold up better.

    IF it even got built before the next hurricane, that is.

  • ed||

    ...zone the whole place as a giant RV park. Then before the next hurricane blew into town, all the residents could just drive off and get away from it.

    Intriguing. We all know that tornados and hurricanes like to hunt down and destroy mobile homes. But what about the mobile homes that are, well, mobile? They can just run away! I do believe Gilbert Martin has solved the problem.

  • ||

    Gilbert, absent insurance subsidy, I wouldn't be surprised to see large swaths of the the lowest lying areas converted to golf course resorts, with a few large hotel/casinos. When the next hurricane/flood hits, if the loss was mostly limited to flooding parking garages and sand traps, it would be a manageable risk.

  • ||

    Want to take bets on which zone holds up best in the next hurricaine?

    Only if we can bet on which zone rebuilds and recovers the fastest after a hurricane, too.

  • ||

    "Yeah, the issue here is the ability to insure."

    I think we may assume the people in the unregulated zone will be self-insured, so to speak.

    I think we may also safely assume that people with no clue how to stick two pieces of wood together will not be rushing into this neighborhood. If, in the unlikely event such an area could be established, I expect it would become a magnet for architecture (not planning) students who either want to test their own theories, or examine the solutions of others. We are not really talking about some sort of post-apocalyptic refugee nightmare, here, so calm yourselves. What a bunch of hysterics. Just because you don't know how to do anything but pick up a phone, don't assume that everybody else is as helpless as you.

    And now I have to go run a new 220v circuit for my welder.

  • Gilbert Martin||

    "But what about the mobile homes that are, well, mobile? They can just run away!"

    Just don't put "school bus" Nagin in charge of directing the evacuation.

  • ||

    Maybe they should zone the whole place as a giant RV park.



    That is what it looks like now. I was home two weeks ago and saw FEMA trailers on every other lawn.

  • ||

    Not just self-insured P Brooks, but largely willing and able to build on a cash basis, since there are not too many lenders who are going to extend credit to build structures in a New Orleans in which flood insurance is not available. Now, given time, such lenders may become available, with the right design and construction techniques, but it would not be a credit market which would spring up quickly. The VP of credit risk at Countrywide Mortgage is going to have a hard time putting his career on the line in support of extending credit to New Orleans homeowners who can't get flood insurance, no matter how well designed the homes are.

  • ||

    Will Allen-

    Nobody is likely to come in and build something too big or too nice to lose. Traditional structures from that part of the world, built by and for people with local knowledge, seem to be cheap, but also easy to recover (clean/ reapair/ et c). As I recall, the "shotgun shack" is made to allow water to flow through it. The levee breaks were extraordinary events, but for decades prior to the creation of the Army Corps of Engineers, people lived along the Mississippi with full knowledge of the risks.

  • ||

    Having grown up in a "shotgun house", I can tell you that its design was more appropriate for cooling than water flow.

  • ||

    Much poorer people, P Brooks, for the most part, who were willing to live in a fashion that even "poor" people today would be unwilling to tolerate, especially if there are richer people who have the ability to build very hurricane and flood tolerant structures on the same real estate. It would be an interesting experiment, which we will unfortunately not be able to witness, that would likely yield results which would surprise both of us in some regards.

  • ||

    Building codes are minimum standards. Anyone that can afford better builds better. When one buys a "code" house one buys the minimum a contractor can get away with. Rich people build on a hill, poor people live in flood plains. When there are codes there may well be bribes or kickbacks. Inspectors are contractors that are unable/unwilling to get a real job. There are three entities concerned about the quality of a home. 1. Obviously the owner, since his money is at stake. 2.The bank, if money was borrowed. 3. The insurers, since they don't want to pay out any money. Beyond that the quality of a home is no one else's business.

  • ||

    I recall reading some years ago that one of the peverse results of building codes is that many structures wind up "built down" to code. Is this a common occurence? It fits my experience (read below if you care).

    WARNING! Personal, unscientific, anecdotal evidence follows.

    I live in a 100 year old brick house that is definitely not up to code and has not been particularly well maintained. For some reason, it seems to have weathered quite well compared to the nearby shacks - they might as well be shacks - that were thrown up only 10 or 20 years ago. The houses in the neighborhood are similarly proportioned, is just that the newer ones seem shoddily built.

  • Gilbert Martin||

    "Beyond that the quality of a home is no one else's business."

    Unless it is so flimsy that pieces of it fly off in a high wind and smash into somebody else's house and damage it.

  • ||

    "Not that that necessarily has anything to do with New Orleans, but one claim I've heard against immigration is that the Messicans set up slums and ruin land values."

    There is no situation so bad it cannot be made spectacularly worse by the introduction of the dreaded Mexican Immigrint [sic].

  • ||

    Unless it is so flimsy that pieces of it fly off in a high wind and smash into somebody else's house and damage it.

    How about if the house was "code" and pieces flew off and damaged someone else's house. Are the code people/inspectors going to pay? Shit no!!! They are totally out of the picture in all cases.

  • Gilbert Martin||

    No the code inspectors aren't going to pay anything regardless.

    Although the codes may not be adequate in all cases, the absence of codes would most certainly increase the odds that there are more houses that are flimsy enough to pose a danger to other people's property than would otherwise be the case.

    The odds are that people whose house was damaged by somebody else's shack flying apart would not be very succesfull in getting any money out of the other party even if they took them to court and won a negligence lawsuit.

    Better to have some codes in place to ensure the shack doesn't get built in the first place.

  • ||

    Better to have some codes in place to ensure the shack doesn't get built in the first place

    We don't want no poor folks livin' here. Don't even think we want your kind ruining our property values.

  • Jim Lippard||

    The first zone would no doubt end up looking like a squatter city like Kowloon Walled City.

  • ||

    After reading bj's post upthread, I've come to the conclusion that there should be a permitting process that includes a test on reading comprehension and logic before one is allowed to post on the internet.

  • ||

    Some codification in tight urban areas may be necessary. After the fire (late 1700's) the Spanish required brick and tile. (LA history was required when I was a kid- sorry.)

    For single family dwellings on regular plots, stringent codes can be more hassle than helpful. The way things are now, FEMA trailers sit on blocks in the front yards of beautiful, unaffected homes. That can't be any safer than a house put up by a reasonable carpenter.

  • ||

    Mexican women are famous for sweeping and mopping their floors every single damned day. Not to mention the laundry. I suspect that what you're describing has more to do with unattached young men living in groups than with cultural factors.

    I'll attest to that.

    We had a smallish cape cod starter that was feeling cramped with teh 4 of us and *at least* 3 hipsanic families bought the one next to us.

    The women didn't speak a word of ingles, but they were out there every day sweeping and raking the front area. Except for the 6 cars on our street with no off-street parking and the occasional shirtless male gathering, you'd never know that many people were in that tiny little house.

  • Ayn Randian||

    Don't even think we want your kind ruining our property values.

    I am not going to lie. There ARE certain "types" of people I don't want living near me and ruining my enjoyment of my property. My preferences aren't race-based, or income-based, they are classiness-based. That is, basically, if you're dumb as hell and trashy to boot, I don't want you around. I am not going to apologize for that.

  • ||

    I am not going to lie. There ARE certain "types" of people I don't want living near me and ruining my enjoyment of my property. My preferences aren't race-based, or income-based, they are classiness-based. That is, basically, if you're dumb as hell and trashy to boot, I don't want you around. I am not going to apologize for that.

    No apology needed, but really, I don't care who you are as long as you are decent neighbor. IOW, you don't park cars on your grass, you don't have any on blocks, you cut your grass, you don't have 10 dogs, etc.

  • bill||

    A third alternative is to not rebuild those homes at all. Those areas that were wiped out should be allowed to return to green space.

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