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.