Zoning Kills Affordable Housing

How established homeowners use regulations to stop new low-cost homes.


Snob Zones: Fear, Prejudice, and Real Estate, by Lisa Prevost, Beacon Press, 208 pages, $26.95.

When a news crew showed up to film a public meeting in tony Darien, Connecticut, in 2005, some of the residents were less than thrilled. "Why don't you fucking shoot something else?" one demanded. Hundreds crammed into the hearing, sneering and jeering during the presentation.

The fresh hell residents showed up to protest? A proposal to replace a nondescript single-family home on a one-acre lot with 20 condos for senior citizens.

In Snob Zones, journalist Lisa Prevost describes the heights of entitlement to which property owners ascend when faced with the prospect of new development, especially multi-family dwellings in neighborhoods dominated by single-family homes. Prevost tours New England and finds an aging, declining populace bent on excluding outsiders. In town after town, affluent and working-class alike, residents line up to shout down new development no matter how modest.

In Darien, the need for the proposed project was clear; the town's senior housing center had a long wait list, as did the last condo development built in the area (in 1994). Still, many townsfolk, expecting the project to open the floodgates to more high-density projects in the resolutely low-density burgh, were incensed.

Incumbent homeowners have a powerful weapon for vetoing change: zoning. In Darien and other exclusive zip codes, mandated minimum lot sizes kneecap developers who want to build something other than super-sized homes. In the process, they put entire towns out of reach for all but the wealthy. In hardscrabble Ossippee, New Hampshire, where it's not uncommon for the working poor to live in tents during the summer months to save on rent, the zoning code flatly prohibits new apartment buildings.

Though Prevost, who covers the real estate beat for The New York Times, has no problem with the traditional justification for zoning (but for it, she believes, dirty industries might locate in residential neighborhoods), she has written as damning an indictment of zoning as any free marketeer could hope for. "The market is hungry for apartments, condominiums, and small homes," says Prevost, "if only zoning restrictions would get out of the way."

Where libertarians see an infringement on property rights, Prevost sees a problematic tradeoff between local demands for low density (tinged with fears that undesirables might move in next door) and regional needs for affordable housing. It amounts to the same thing, however: established residents using government force to kill the low-cost housing that would exist in a free market. In the words of the pioneering community planner (and ardent urban renewal opponent) Paul Davidoff, those who wield zoning laws "have not bought the land but instead have done the cheap and nasty thing of employing the police power to protect their own interest." Nice.

The book takes its name from Massachusetts law 40B, the so-called "anti–snob zoning act." The law, passed in 1969, allows developers to bypass land-use restrictions in towns where less than 10 percent of the housing meets the state's definition of affordable. Developers who set aside a quarter of their units for low- and moderate-income residents can receive tax exemptions and subsidized loans. The law is controversial—to put it mildly. Locals hate 40B because it allows developers to build unpopular projects with public money. Housing activists note that it—and similar laws like Connecticut's 8-30g, which was in play in Darien—hasn't produced nearly enough affordable housing to sate demand.

There is plenty of bad governance in Snob Zones. In Milbridge, Maine, seasonal workers sleep in cars and tents because employers can't build enough housing for them—courtesy of state standards that needlessly inflate the cost of such housing. Officials in exclusive Roxbury, Connecticut, tighten zoning restrictions, despite residents' objections, to preserve the town's "pristine" character and purported rural heritage. Never mind that the area's true history is a series of smokestacks, mines, quarries, clear-cut forests and working-class boarding houses.

But more often than not it's the snobs, locals who oppose development carte blanche, who play the villain in Prevost's telling. In South Easton, Massachusetts, for instance, residents mounted a campaign to "Save Our Neighborhood" to stop a developer from building "cottage" homes. Built seven to an acre, the cottages required no subsidy, just a zoning variance.

Town officials thought the design was innovative and that the project fulfilled a desperate need for low-cost housing. Residents, on the other hand, voiced a litany of complaints: The project would undermine the town's character, its water supply, the schools, and more. Faced with overwhelming opposition, officials declined to issue the variance. So the developer tried to force the development through using 40B, igniting more anger. Permitting delays and the collapse of the housing market ultimately doomed the project.

Prevost sees little hope of changing entrenched attitudes about multi-family housing developments. "This is a world where facts are irrelevant," says a demographer she spoke to. "I've explained over and over again that workforce housing is not Section 8 housing with welfare recipients packed in there."

Snobs dominate local politics and are unlikely to embrace relaxed zoning codes any time soon. Change may yet come, though, as the demand for single-family homes subsides. The next generation simply isn't as enamored of low-density living as baby boomers were.

Washington D.C., hardly a bastion of free-market sentiment, may soon allow accessory dwellings in single-family zones, which would allow renters to penetrate neighborhoods that have been off limits for decades to people unable or unwilling to buy a whole house. Perhaps the most pro–property rights initiative contemplated in the city in recent years, the zoning rewrite is championed by progressive smart-growth enthusiasts. If it prevails, it will be over the fervent objections of local snobs, who currently enjoy veto power over their neighbors' ability to rent out their own basements and detached garages.

Economic reality is helping preferences evolve as well. In the words of one developer who switched to building cottage homes during the recession: "I used to say, we're building homes for people who can't afford them, with money they don't have, to impress people they don't know. You could just see it—it was stupid."

But in Darien, Connecticut, and many other communities, change is not even on the table. Wealthy opponents of the senior living center ultimately did the free-market thing and bought out the developers; the site of the proposed project is now a meadow. But local politicians managed to get state bureaucrats to sign off on a development moratorium after the developers, a husband-and-wife duo, attempted to use their multi-million-dollar payday to fund other multi-family projects in town. Snob zones aren't going anywhere anytime soon.

NEXT: Brickbat: Liberal School Policy

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  1. Does this cover the topic any better than PJ O’Rourke did in At Home in the Parliament of Whores*?

    11 pages vs 208 pages, for one thing.

    *The last chapter of his book Parliament of Whores

    1. Yeah but reprinting that costs money. This way Reason gets to support the little guy libertarian and spend a fraction of the money you and I give them. Anyway, let’s support him while he’s here. The minute Bangladeshi kids in sweat shops find out they can undercut American freelance writers I fully expect to see their bylines in Reason

      1. The day Bangledeshi kids in sweat shops replace freelance American writers will be a Libertopian holiday. Truly a day worthy of celebration.

        *sips orphans’ blood from gold goblet*

    2. up to I looked at the bank draft that said $5552, I be certain that my mom in-law truley making money parttime at there labtop.. there brothers friend has been doing this 4 only about 17 months and just now paid for the morgage on there mini mansion and got a great Volkswagen Golf GTI. read more at wow65.com
      (Go to site and open “Home” for details)

  2. The problem with zoning laws isn’t the effect on a community’s plan for affordable housing. Fuck that. The problem is the assault on property rights and what a person can do with his own real estate.

    1. “Better to build a golf course right through the middle of Redwood National Park and condominiums on top of the Lincoln Memorial than to sit in council gorging on the liberties of others, gobbling their material substance, eating freedom.” — PJ O’Rourke

    2. his own real estate

      As long as there are property taxes, what a concept!

  3. Though Prevost, who covers the real estate beat for The New York Times

    I wonder her position on eminent domain?

    1. In the category of land law, Eminent Domain is the only thing more evil than zoning. It’s my god damn little plot of dirt, you’re not going to put another deathtrap highway on it, or give it to Pyramid to make another of their abominable shopping centers!

      I don’t care if my neighbors don’t like what I’ve done with it, it’s MY eyesore!

      1. I thought you were the eyesore, not what you’ve done with your property.

        1. Nah, my neighbors rarely ever see me.

          1. Something for which I’m sure they’re extremely grateful. :-p

          2. they can smell you and hear the occasional half-scream though, right?

            1. What exactly do you think I am?

              1. one of the Elder Gods.

                1. So that’s why I hear them chant ‘ia ia ia’ in the dark of the new moon and feed on shadenfreude and insanity.

              2. What exactly do you think I am?

                A stinky, antisocial lunatic? After all, you are a libertarian.

                1. Actually, I’ve said it before, I’m not a libertarian.

  4. Dude seems to know what he is talking about. Wow.


    1. Dude looks like a lady, Anon Bot.

      I’m talking to a Bot. Jesus.

      1. Roll that beautful bean footage.

        1. Makes a lot of sense if you think about it.

          1. No, it doesn’t

  5. There’s plenty of affordable housing in Cleveland.

    Seriously, Warty, WTF is wrong with that place?

    1. That’s Warty’s house.

      1. That was my first thought on seeing the story was from Cleveland.

    2. Buy a home for the price of a V-C-R!

      1. What’s a VCR?

  6. I can understand the argument for providing affordable housing for those in need, but do we really need to force the taxpayers to foot the bill for people to live in whatever high priced neighborhood they choose?

    Also, the reason Darien CT is so expensive is because of it’s proximity to an area with a lot of jobs, so I’m not sure I’m buying the argument that there exists some need for retirees to live there.

    1. There are lots of jobs in Texas and the cost of living there is low — even in cities like Houston or DFW

      1. Yes, and Houston doesn’t have zoning*.

        * Sort of.

        1. STOP ASHBY HIGHRISE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    2. Bridgeport is right down the road and is a shit hole. Proximity to NYC is not the reason Darien is so expensive.

  7. I think if regulations, Social Security and taxes weren’t structured in such a way that the only real way to build wealth for most people was home equity, people wouldn’t freak out as much. Plopping high-density housing in the middle of single family homes hurts the value of those homes. They fight back with zoning, the only weapon they have.

    SLD, yadda, yadda… but if hillbillies next door decided to tear down their house and build a biker bar, that action would cost me a hundred grand if I moved to get away from them. And Coasean bargaining starts to look like extortion once enough neighbors get in on the scam.

  8. Zoning, city planning, eminent domain; all way for the Right People to force others to conform. Such a pity that the Right People are almost invariably pillocks.

    @Sugarfree; seems to me that the way to deal with a neighbor dropping your property value in the septic system would be to sue for damages. Anybody know why that wouldn’t work?

    1. Has that even been tried before?

    2. “@Sugarfree; seems to me that the way to deal with a neighbor dropping your property value in the septic system would be to sue for damages. Anybody know why that wouldn’t work?”

      The question I have is whether there is such a thing as a ‘property value’ until said property is sold.

      1. Well, municipalities sure like to tax you on the assumption that there is.

        1. Also Gubermint will tell you the value with Eminent Domain.

  9. I’m not sure this article belongs in Reason Magazine. It reads more like an entry in Mother Jones bemoaning the power the of 1%. Property is a unique asset to the owner and the value can be affected by a myriad of forces. Is the property owner left with no recourse if steps are taken to reduce the value of that asset. As a libertarian, I have no problems with zoning laws and see them as the legitimate expression of local governance. The alternative, as I see it, in this article is advocating a free for all that could lead to absurd results, like a placing a halfway house for sex offenders next to a school. I know it is a provocative example, but it makes the case that there is a role for local government. If you don’t like to zoning laws, vote, or better yet, run for local office.

    1. Well at least a sex offender next to a school would ensure the teachers had a healthy respect for 2a rights.
      Speaking of which you could have a gun range located on the other side of the school. Hmmmmmm seems we fixed a problem even under your extreme conditions. You are welcome

    2. Yay, zoning concern trolling nimbyism!!!!!

      The alternative, as I see it, in this article is advocating a free for all that could lead to absurd results, like a placing a halfway house for sex offenders next to a school.

      So the government puts something next to another government building an this is the fault of the libertarian free market of property?

      1. Oh, no, they put it next to the private school to drive it out of business.

        1. Yep, can’t have a school within X feet! Move the school!

    3. As a registered sex offender, I prefer to live on a Robert Trent Jones designed golf course in an exclusive community. We are everywhere.

  10. While zoning is an infringement on personal property, “affordable housing” is a government scam.

    It regulates who can live there and how much money they can make. It bails out those that fell for the government lie and did not plan for their retirement or retired at all.

    Most folks on this blog see that as the bigger issue. We have little in common with this author and their complaint.

    …in my opinion.

  11. Zoning, something libertarians in general loathe, is being used in this case to hide the much more egregious ‘affordable housing’. Some hints of immigration issues vis a vis the ‘seasonal workers’ have also been thrown in to garner libertarian support for this expansion of the welfare state.

  12. There are so many shitty things like this from government that make it difficult for people to succeed. What’s worse is that most people don’t have a clue about it and will blame a lack of government regulation and control, leading to even more!

  13. Have to disagree this this article. No, it’s not “none of my business” if someone decides to put an apartment building in the middle of my neighborhood of single-family homes. It completely changes the character of the neighborhood and in part destroys what I bought when I purchased my home. What if someone wants to put a 20-story bank building in the middle of a neighborhood — would that be O.K., too?

    Anyone in real estate will tell you that a home purchase isn’t just about the home itself — it’s also about the location and the neighborhood. Developers shouldn’t be able to make major changes to the character of a neighborhood in ways that will reduce property values.

    Furthermore, objections to multi-family dwellings are not just about property values or “keeping out the undesirables.” There is also the fact that apartments and cheap houses are notorious for very quickly degrading and becoming eyesores. If low-income housing is built near where you live, the best thing you can do is move… FAST… before the crime rate goes up and your home starts losing value.

    1. What’s the issue with “keeping out the undesirables” anyway? It’s why we all strive for the almighty buck, so we can distance ourselves from the ever present shitholes populated by shitbirds.

      1. If you don’t want undesirables living near you, then you’d better actually own the land area around you. If you build a shitty McMansion near an empty lot owned by a developer, well that’s your fault. They have every right to build on the land they own.

        1. The shitty McMansion is more often placed next to an empty lot ZONED only for….. the construction of another gross mansion; hence the reason it was actually constructed in the first place. Those within the zone in effect do collectively “own” the land for a specific purpose, to construct mansions on. It may not be “fair” to the shithole contractor but what about this is hard to understand? It’s only unfair to the degree there are no places to put shitholes.

    2. Residential property is an expense, not a fucking investment. Property values are only an additional natural risk or reward of owning a house for the primary purpose to fucking live in it. You are not entitled to property values being what you want them to be at the expense of what other people can do with their own property as long as they do not directly physically harm your property. Aesthetics of the place next door do not count as direct physical harm. Fuck you.

      1. [Residential property is an expense, not a fucking investment]

        No MBA you.

        [as long as they do not directly physically harm your property.]

        So fuck you, people of Gettysburg, Jamestown, Charleston, Savannah, etc and those open air theaters and restaurants downwind my urban pig farm.

        You’re a dipshit. Probably a dipshit that rents.

        1. Did you go to Harvard for an MBA and learn that real estate is the surest possible investment ever and there is no way it is anything but?

          1. Harvard of the West. U. Mich. But I bought little of their claptrap, just as I’m buying little of yours. What I do know is that as long as there are those with the desire and the means to abide in dwellings valued in the millions I know you won’t be living anywhere near their zipcode. If there is one thing that will compel a person to shower a politician with money it’s to keep from living next to you and me. Same thing is true to keep his business value intact. “Zero zoning” costs the Libertarian movement almost as much as “open borders”. Neither concept is workable and both will be alive and well in Libertarian Utopia.

        2. Air pollution from a pig farm is not the same thing as “eww gross poor people within a mile of my mansion!” as long as you can’t smell said poor people, of course.

    3. “What if someone wants to put a 20-story bank building in the middle of a neighborhood — would that be O.K., too?”

      Yes. As land becomes more scarce, owners may desire to redevelop it to meet changing needs.

    4. Funny how nothing provides a bigger buzz-kill to our inner-libertarian than zoning laws. As a builder I can tell you few things convert freedom-loving Americans into totalitarian zealots faster than an HOA meeting or a zoning board review.

      If you don’t like what’s happening on that plot about to be bulldozed by evil developers, howzabout coming up with what it takes to buy them out? Or go to court and prove that they’re directly affecting you. All you bought when you purchased was your home, not the right to dictate what others could do with their property – unless you had that clause in your contract or affiliated covenants.

      Of course, you may think they, I and everybody has a right to force you to stop doing whatever you do on your property that we decide that we don’t like.

      Look, limited zoning laws can have some purpose to help manage services, transportation and utilities. It is clear that they have gone far beyond this purpose. Look at the disastrous results of zoning on the modern urban landscape, where such efforts in “planning” lead to sprawl, congestion and blight far in excess of that which they were meant to prevent, while making shelter needlessly more expensive.

      Let me end this way – what developer would want to build a 20-story office building someplace where it wouldn’t work or fit (unless, of course, they could get the govt to subsidize it), anymore than you would want to build your home 20 miles out to sea?

      1. Funny, you hate some zoning laws, but the ones you like (“limited” ones) are OK?

        Zoning laws, like most laws are easily abused. I appreciate your frustration as a builder in dealing with them, but at the same time you are affecting other people. We all want to better our lives and make our property better from our point of view. Nobody should put restrictions on that. But when my pursuit of the dream starts taking away from others’ then there needs to be an ability to have a line drawn. Unlike most things, property value is not purely internal. If I buy a car, it’s value cannot be affected by anything my neighbors do unless they do something directly to it. My home value though, can be affected. And looking at most of these stories, it is generally people looking for a change to existing laws/zoning. People bought and invested under one set of zoning laws, and now that they and the laws have resulted in valuable real estate, someone wants to come in and change the laws on them and cost them tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars.

      2. Oh, and about “howzabout coming up with what it takes to buy them out?” That is both a ridiculous and rude argument. It could also be considered extortion ; ‘buy this lot from me for 100 grand or I’ll put a porn shop here and your home value drops buy 200 grand”.

      3. “People bought and invested under one set of zoning laws, and now that they and the laws have resulted in valuable real estate, someone wants to come in and change the laws on them and cost them tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars.”

        Just like all those good people who invested in property knowing that colored folk were legally barred from moving in next door, only to have their cultural security stripped by people who live somewhere else.

        Tough shit. People are not entitled to continual benefits from unjust legal constructs that artificially alter the market and restrict individual liberty.

        1. Unfortunately, some degree of laws are necessary for us to exist as a society. Your fanatical worship free markets solely for the sake of free markets is flawed. Any defense of free markets needs to come from the understanding that first, they flow naturally from human interaction which is why they are superior to the constructed ideas of “theories” like marxism, but that very human nature means there are flaws to exploit in them, and secondly that they are the best means for improving the lives, prosperity, and freedom of both individuals and humanity as a whole. Capitalism functions by allowing people to work toward bettering their lives. If it does not allow a fair expectation of that it will fail — this is in a way why some minorities stay fallen behind: in order for capitalism to work, you have to believe in it. Zoning laws, while often abused, are one of the ways we can ensure that decades of someone working to better themselves isn’t tossed aside because some developer made a hefty contribution and changed the laws the purchase was made under.

          And BTW, this situation isn’t remotely comparable to segregation.

          1. There was segregation by zoning and covenants. And there still is zoning restrictions against shit like unrelated cohabitation. Fuck it all.

            If the laws an old arrangement was made under were unjust, I do not care what precedents get thrown out as long as individual liberty is increased. What a developer can do to influence local politics is a red herring to me unless you are talking about them turning a libertarian zoning situation in to an unlibertarian one.

          2. As a matter of fact, all zoning laws changed the rules when they were implemented. As far as I know, no property owner was ever compensated for takings due to a zoning law harming the value of the property.

          3. And, somebody did have to influence a local politician (or become one) in order to have zoning laws imposed in the first place. Geez, logic like this:

            “ensure that decades of someone working to better themselves isn’t tossed aside because some developer made a hefty contribution and changed the laws the purchase was made under”

            is full of holes.

  14. The small town I live in is part of one of the USA’s poorest areas, but it has high real estate prices thanks to the fact that we have a local college and a landlord cartel that owns most of the rental properties. I wouldn’t doubt that there are zoning restrictions as well.

  15. I’ve often wondered what scheme could be used to allow zoning laws, but still keep them in check reasonably. Obviously zoning should be almost completely curtailed (at least compared to now), but there would still be a necessuty for SOME minimal zoning, at the very least a separation of residential vs. everything else (and zoning, believe it or not, can lead to more freedom and changeability for the future than HOAs ever will – again, zoning is over the top now, but the way zoning is set up vs. contract law can in fact in the long run create more freedom and changeability in plans).

    The only simple answer I can come up with is letting only people under the age of 33 vote for zoning laws. Or perhaps also an income cut off (you can’t vote if you’re rich). ANyway, none of it is doable without some 3rd party power enforcing these policies on the people/towns; most people will defend zoning. Sometimes I feel like the only way this country will ever be saved is with a Roman-style ascension of a militry emperor-like leader. Probably the only way zoning, the unions, etc. could end.

    1. Separating residential from everything else is the biggest problem. You get people relying on their cars to go anywhere, and acres of houses with no stores or gas stations or employers. Cities that developed prior to zoning (like NYC) have walkable neighborhoods where you can walk to work, walk to a restaurant, and walk to the grocery store.

  16. I live in a wonderful small town, and as much as I oppose zoning laws IN PRINCIPLE, once you become a homeowner (at least for me, I admit it), I am glad my neighborhood has them, as well as a HOA.

    For example, many areas not too far from where I live are “open shoot”. I don’t want to live in open shoot. Open shoot is zoned such that it’s perfectly legal to discharge firearms (target practice etc.) in your backyard. The only requirement is a proper backstop.

    A lot of city folk move to the rural areas and then get all bent out of shape when their neighbors are target practicing, etc. on Sunday afternoon with their loud-ass-rifle(tm). But hey, they didn’t do their due diligence and check the laws. Their bad.

    Similarly, I don’t want to get woken up by a rooster every morning. Zoning in my town prevents the owning of such agriculture.

    So, hey I’ll admit it. I wouldn’t live somewhere without tight zoning.

    1. I agree with you on everything but the HOA. If they kept things reasonable and didn’t nitpick everything down to what kind of stones are allowed in your koi pond, I would move somewhere with an HOA. As it stands now, I’ve heard too many horror stories about how some HOA’s have turned into mini-Talibans. Fortunately, where I live now, the city has their own code of reasonable property standards and enforce them real well.

    2. Really? So towns can’t just have anti-noise ordinances and no open shoot zones without also having the stalin-esque building restrictions? The two always have to go together?

      Please. Crappiest argument for over-the-top zoning I;ve ever heard.

  17. Living in MA, I can say that 40B is used to jam crappy housing onto too-small lots under the guise of providing affordable housing. The builders push it, but once they’ve made their buck, they’re gone and onto raping the next neighborhood. It’s all BS! There is no right to live in any particular town, any more than there is a right to health care.

    1. I can understand the motive behind such a law anyway. What’s gonna happen when there’s a ton of people with nowhere to live, houses/rents are way too expensive and gas prices make commuting cost-prohibitive? Tent cities? Squeezing 8-10 people into available apartments or homes? You want your kid and his/her significant other living with you until they’re 40?

      I’m not saying zoning laws are a bad idea. But some things about the cost of living need to be taken into consideration. Better a multi-family unit being built nearby than a row of tents and cars (with no plumbing, I might add) on the side of the road.

      1. People can always live 30 miles away where it’s cheaper, and take the (private) bus.

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    1. Now I’m no computer programmer, but it seems like spam of this sort would be awfully easy to filter out, even for H&R.

  19. Which is more libertarian though? A statewide anti-snob-zoning law, or local communities democratically deciding what sorts of new properties they want to allow within their borders?

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  21. I grew up in a shitty inner city neighborhood that just kept getting shittier. I worked my ass off to get the hell away from there and now live in a nicer, safer place. Yeah, I know there’s no Utopia and there are assholes everywhere, but I’d rather not have the uneducated douche bag filth (I can call them that because I was one of them) following me to my little slice of heaven. Most of these do-gooder types that write books and opine about snobbery never had the pleasure of growing up with the alleged disenfranchised. They are the perpetually naive that wouldn’t last an hour where I grew up, but they know best? What a joke they are. Let’s just say that in America there’s a huge difference between the alleged “poor” and those in actual need. My heart truly aches for the latter but the former can go to hell.

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