Land Use

Reason TV: Should More Land Use Scholars Be Libertarians?


In a recent Washington Post article, Ilya Somin responded to a provocative question raised by liberal land use scholar Kenneth Stahl. Given the failure of so many left-leaning land use policies, Stahl wondered in Concurring Opinions, "should more land use professors be libertarians?" Somin, a libertarian land use scholar himself, answered the question in the affirmative, pointing out that he and other libertarian land use scholars have advocated government protection of property rights over government planning for years.

Reason TV's Todd Krainin recently took a critical look at zoning laws in Houston and Washington, DC, in a program called "Jay Austin's Beautiful, Illegal Tiny House."

The original release date was August 7, 2014. The original writeup is below.

Demand for housing in Washington, DC is going through the roof. Over a thousand people move to the nation's capital every month, driving up the cost of housing, and turning the city into a construction zone. Tower cranes rising high above the city streets have become so common, they're just part of the background.

But as fast as the cranes can rise, demand for housing has shot up even faster, making DC among the most expensive cities in the United States. With average home prices at $453 per square foot, it's every bit as expensive as New York City. And the struggles of one homebuilder shows just why the city's shortage looks to continue for a long time.

"I got driven down the tiny house road because of affordability, simplicity, sustainability, and then mobility," says Jay Austin, who designed a custom 140-square-foot house in Washington, DC. Despite the miniscule size, his "Matchbox" house is stylish, well-built, and it includes all the necessities (if not the luxuries) of life: a bathroom, a shower, a modest kitchen, office space, and a bedroom loft. There's even a hot tub outside.

Clever design elements make the most of minimalism. The Matchbox's high ceilings, skylight, and wide windows make the small space feel modern, uncluttered, and open.

At a cost that ranges from $10,000 to $50,000, tiny homes like the Matchbox could help to ease the shortage of affordable housing in the capital city. Heating and cooling costs are negligible. Rainwater catchment systems help to make the homes self-sustaining. They're an attractive option to the very sort of residents who the city attracts in abundance: single, young professionals without a lot of stuff, who aren't ready to take on a large mortgage.

But tiny houses come with one enormous catch: they're illegal, in violation of several codes in Washington DC's Zoning Ordinance. Among the many requirements in the 34 chapters and 600 pages of code are mandates defining minimum lot size, room sizes, alleyway widths, and "accessory dwelling units" that prevent tiny houses from being anything more than a part-time residence.

That's why Austin and his tiny house-dwelling neighbors at Boneyard Studios don't actually live in their own homes much of the time. To skirt some of the zoning regulations, they've added wheels to their homes, which reclassifies them as trailers – and subjects them to regulation by the Department of Motor Vehicles. But current law still requires them to either move their homes from time to time, or keep permanent residences elsewhere.

The DC Office of Zoning, the Zoning Commission, the Zoning Administrator, the Board of Zoning Adjustment, and the Office of Planning all declined to comment on the laws that prevent citizens from living in tiny houses. But their website offers a clue:

Outdated terms like telegraph office and tenement house still reside in our regulations. Concepts like parking standards and antenna regulations are based on 1950s technology, and new concepts like sustainable development had not even been envisioned.

Complex as it is, the Zoning Ordinance of the District of Columbia was approved in 1958. That's over five decades of cultural change and building innovations, like tiny houses, that the code wasn't designed to address.

Exemptions and alterations to the code are possible – many are granted every year – but they don't come cheaply. Lisa Sturtevant of the National Housing Conference estimates that typical approvals add up to $50,000 to the cost of a new single-family unit. That's why large, wealthy developers enjoy greater flexibility to build in the city, but tiny house dwellers… not so much.

Fortunately, a comprehensive rewrite of the zoning code has been in the works for much of the last decade. Efforts to allow more affordable housing are underway, although many of these solutions favor large developers. Future plans still forbid tiny houses. Austin estimates that, given the current glacial pace of change among the city's many zoning committees, tiny houses are "many years, if not decades out" from being allowed in the city.

For now, Jay Austin is allowed to build the home of his dreams – he just can't live there. The Matchbox has become a part-time residence and a full-time showpiece. The community of tiny houses at Boneyard Studios are periodically displayed to the public in the hopes of changing a zoning authority that hasn't updated a zoning code in 56 years.

Runs about 10:30

Produced, shot, written, narrated, and edited by Todd Krainin.

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  1. It’s Saturday. Something funny and off topic, and if you’re at work, probably not safe for work.

    Pornhub comments on stock photos:

    1. That was pretty funny.

  2. This is actually an excellent topic… possibly because I was bitching about it before it was cool?

    Anyhoo. There’s a shitload of cultural intersections on this subject, which is why I find it so fascinating.

    I’ve read a few interesting articles on the subject where certain points were carefully (or possibly obliviously) danced around.

    One of the issues that stuck out for me was all these great innovations by some young up-and-coming millennials, and how they were running squarely into the buzzsaw of onerous zoning and regulatory hurdles. It was also disappointing to me because some of the young people driving this interesting trend in housing seemed oblivious to the larger picture. They seemed to believe that passing better regulations would solve all their problems.

    In a way, I suppose they’re right. But it also seems that we’ve lost something in this country. It seems that clever innovations have to exist in a frustrating political space, and can’t stand on their own merits.

    I’m sure that to some degree, this has always been the case, but it seems more the rule rather than the exception.

    1. It was also disappointing to me because some of the young people driving this interesting trend in housing seemed oblivious to the larger picture

      As “It’s a free country” continues it’s march on to “you are free to take orders and ask permission” this isn’t really a surprise.

      As a parent of two teenagers (who have lots of friends) I am occasionally taken aback at how well-behaved today’s kids are compared to my cohort growing up. I get the nagging feeling I’m failing as a parent somehow. 🙂

  3. ” There’s a shitload of cultural intersections on this subject…”

    I disagree. There is only one. The intersection of the people who want to own land with those who want to tell others what to do with their property.

    When it comes to property rights I am a purist.

    1. Ok Ice Cube, I know you angry!

      What I’m more talking about is how different people and generations perceive the issues of how the interference from the state is perceived.

      I’m an angry libertarian. So yeah, I lean more your way. However, it seems the young Millennials seem to believe that writing a strongly– and I say STRONGLY worded letter (but yet asking nicely) to the Land Use Department at the city will cure all ills.

      1. I strongly recommend that young millennials give that a try. It will be a very good educational experience for them.

        I liked the way my grandfather’s generation dealt with things like that. They showed up at the land use office and gave someone an ass whipping.

      2. It takes banging your head against some level of obdurate government to clear your mind of the “the planners know what’s best for eveybody” twaddle the schools have been dishing out since the Depression. The Millenials will come around after the first time they have to,spend a year jumping through hoops to do so,ething simple on their own property.

        1. Millenials are probably the most arrested generation (I’m talking physically being arrested by police officers) in history, so you’ll have to forgive us if many are hesitant to just run out and settle things the old fashioned way.

          It is a pussy generation, but there also aren’t many options because your generation has allowed the government and its tentacle organizations (to include those who get to exercise force, which is just about all of them these days) to be pumped full of steroids.

          There is almost no rolling back the bureaucracy.

        2. Unfortunately, experience tells me this is mostly untrue. If there was a profession that should turn every one of its practitioners into libertarians it is architecture. The amount of utter bullshit we have to deal with from various city, state, and federal agencies is staggering. The fact that we have to routinely explain to clients that they don’t actually own their land is mind boggling. And yet a decent chunk of us are retarded liberals that think global warming is the worst thing ever and that competition is wrong.

          1. If there was a profession that should turn every one of its practitioners into libertarians it is architecture.

            I’m reminded of the Seinfeld episode where George mentors a kid who wants to go into architecture but decides that city planning would give him more power. I bet a lot of your fellow architects want to let their inner city planners come out.

            (Oh, and fuck you, Robert Moses.)

            1. That is actually probably pretty accurate.


    2. “When it comes to property rights I am a purist.”

      Curious, how do you feel about things like the Keystone Pipeline project using eminent domain to take lands in its path?

      1. I am curious if there are railway rights of way already in existence from Kanukastan to Lake Charles.

        If farmer Smith doesn’t want to sell you his land at the price you are offering, then up the price or tough shit for you.

      2. As a property rights purist, I’d think he’d be pretty pissed about it.

        1. Fair answers. I’m always a bit appalled how some people who seem to be supporters of property rights turn a blind eye to that.

          Not that any such project should have to be subject to the permission of the federal government (who, as we see can act arbitrarily and capricously on the matter).

          1. I’m always a bit appalled how some people who seem to be supporters of property rights turn a blind eye to that.

            I’m not sure if they do. Sure, you can get all Huffington Post about it, and have absolutely NO interest in property rights or the preservation thereof,and make a smug “gotcha” argument about it to show up all those teabaggers.

            Had Obama blocked the keystone pipeline purely for the property rights issues it raises, I might have considered it the finest moment of his eight years in office.

            But we know that no one at the Huffington Post or the White House gives a damn about eminent domain.

            My guess is the “right wing” that hasn’t made a stink about the Keystone pipeline on the eminent domain issue are merely ignorant of it.

            1. “Had Obama blocked the keystone pipeline purely for the property rights issues it raises, I might have considered it the finest moment of his eight years in office.”

              No shit. He might even have made me a fan. But we all know that never crossed his mind and if we brought it up to him he would not have a clue what we were talking about.

              1. I have like Obama once, and only once. When he was asked. The inevitable stupid question about smoking pot it was reported that he answer “yes, I smoked pot” and when somee dolt asked if he inhaled I understand his answer was “I thought that was the point”

                Not quite my preferred answer; “Of course Imsmoked pot when I was young. I did a lot of dumb things when I was young. Didn’t you? Next question!” But close.

                Pity that otherwise he’s a jabbering twit.

          2. I wouldn’t mind if the pipeline (or new power plants, or upgrades to oil refining capacity) was being held up by property owners. I wouldn’t even mind if The Sierra Club was buying property in the right-of-way to hold it up. What annoys me is a bunch of environmentalists who either don’t need cheaper energy, or think they don’t because they DON’T THINK AHEAD using the power of the State.

      3. Yes, when I wrote that I was aware that someone would try to construct a scenario where property rights conflict with the interests of others.

        I am still a purist.

        1. I actually think the toughest scenarios involve nuisance issues.

          1. I should also add animal cruelty laws as an area that might challenge my purity on property rights.

          2. A. I am aware of the nuances. I have seen them exploited time after time to facilitate theft. Fuck a nuance.

            B. I see property rights regarding living things a bit differently than those regarding inanimate objects. They should be separate classes of ownership.

            1. In reality, I find it questionable that we even have property rights in this country or any other I’m aware of.

              The government can take your land under the pretext of the greater good. Compensation doesn’t change the fact that you don’t have a choice.

              You are at the whims of zoning boards and regulators up to the Feds who tell you what you can do on your property and how it can be used.

              What the hell is do we have the right to besides paying taxes on land that we get to live on? We aren’t serfs, but it’s not really yours, either.

  4. Libertarians (and Republicans and conservatives) should talk about this sort of thing more often: the dead weight of old laws and regulations. They are usually part of the “unseen”: invisible costs that were often “good ideas” to “help people,” that most people don’t realize exist, or at least don’t realize their costs. Here, housing regulations that inhibit innovation and stop low-cost housing. Laws that stop Uber and Lyft. Laws that make medicine vastly more expensive. The list is long.

    Statists have an inherent advantage in politics, because they are always talking about intentions and rosy goals that no one really objects to: “education” and “health care” and whatnot. Their assumption is that only more laws and spending will ever make any of these things better. Unfortunately, simply saying “deregulation” doesn’t often work, because too many people think that means “letting companies poison everyone” or something.

    So free market types should be gathering and promoting information that highlights all the money that’s wasted right now. All the innovation that is stopped by obsolete laws. All the “good intentions” gone awry. That gets the message across that 1) things can get better, and 2) it can be done with less government and less spending and fewer laws.

    1. That’s one of the oddities I’ve found talking these sorts of issues with people. They know full well the government is corrupt and that there are ‘unintended’ consequences to those things. They just have trouble taking that abstract concept and applying it to specific cases of regulation and laws.

      You can present all the data you want, I think. It won’t matter. What you are really fighting against is human nature and conventional wisdom. Maybe if the media was on our side, or the school system highlighted these points…but they don’t.

      Libertarians lack credibility because there aren’t libertarians in positions of authority. Our mantra is not the standard statist line which is preached to the public 24/7.

      1. I suppose that some of the various levels of government are corrupt, some of the time. It’s pretty much inevitable. As an amateur student of history, thogh, I am often pleasantly surprised how little corruption there actually is. Yes, we read a out cops behaving like babboons, and eminent domain abuse, and politicians lining their pockets. But we read about it because it is NEWS. It isn’t business as usual.

        Yes, I believe that Eric Holder should be in jail. He’s still (shocking though this may sound) an improvement on the kind of swine who have historically held that kind of post.

        We are, as a nation, backsliding. The Statists have retrograde, not progressive. But the real problem with government – at least OUR givernment – is less that it is corrupt than it is inept. Governments cannot solve the kind of problems that so many people want tye government to solve. And when you demand that people given power do the impossible, that leaves them open to temptation. They can’t do what is asked of them, so they break the rules. And get used to it.

        1. I agree with all that, except for Holder being any sort of improvement. At least with predecessors like John Mitchell, no matter how bad they were otherwise, you didn’t doubt that they loved the country and wanted it to succeed. I don’t believe that about Holder and Obama. They think the US is little more than a continual, unfair, human rights violation, and we can only be cured with a heavy leftist PC makeover, including some major surgery.

      2. Leftists present politics as government spending = doing good and feeling good. They turned that into “conventional wisdom.” If you don’t think that can be changed, you might as well forget any chance of winning in politics.

        So take the abstract concepts of liberty and spontaneous order and innovation and the drag of obsolete laws and regulations and bureaucracies and apply them to specific solutions. Change the conversation in the direction we want. Hell, the Democrats somehow made birth control an issue out of nothing, decades after it was a real controversy. Let’s make issues of what we want.

        “Government bureaucracy and vested interests are stopping the creation of good, cheap housing. Here’s how cutting red tape and obsolete laws will help.” That’s a good, rational, fact-based, practical argument for liberty. Use words like “diversity” and “personalized.” I think many, many voters will respond to that sort of argument.

        Important: don’t pine for Libertopia. Arguing extreme cases allows the anti-libertarians to say: “See? Our straw man is right!” That way is electoral suicide. Be practical. Compromise. You won’t get everything you want all at once, but concentrate on getting things moving in the correct direction, somewhere, as a practical demonstration.

        1. If you don’t think that can be changed, you might as well forget any chance of winning in politics.

          How many libertarians are there in influential positions to shape curriculum in schools?

          How many libertarian talking heads are there on any of the major news channels or writing for the major papers?

          Libertarians can’t set the agenda the same way progressives can because we don’t have libertarians in those positions. Self-identified libertarians are a very small group – probably even smaller than progressives. Unlike progressives, though, libertarians don’t constitute sizable parts of the media or academia.

          This is the issue I have with ideas like the libertarian moment or shaping national arguments. There simply aren’t enough libertarians and there aren’t enough in influential positions to truly matter. Libertarians aren’t as organized as the progressives and have not been as successful at moving the Republican party as they have the Democrats (who have become far more ‘radical’ or ‘extreme’ than the Repubs and the Tea Party despite claims from the media).

          Republicans struggle against these same two core issues because the agenda and conventional wisdom are set by the groups out of their control. And Repubs are far more numerous than libertarians.

          1. If it sounds defeatist, that’s because it is. Libertarians need a miracle or some sort of breakthrough, but we typically get something closer to the Battle of the Somme.

            Rand Paul is the best chance we have to actually shape the national agenda and bring some balance to the statist assholes who hold the levers of power.

          2. There simply aren’t enough libertarians and there aren’t enough in influential positions to truly matter.

            This can be worked around. My approach will appeal to both libertarians (non-dogmatic ones, at least) and to many others. Asking good questions and framing issues can have an impact far out of proportion to numbers. Don’t be defeatist.

        2. “Government bureaucracy and vested interests are stopping the creation of good, cheap housing. Here’s how cutting red tape and obsolete laws will help.”

          “Libertarians want to take away my tax credits!” “I can’t afford a “20% down payment!” “Rand Paul wants to bring back segregated neighborhood covenants!”

          And so on.

          1. Flak and bullshit will happen, but that’s no excuse not to frame your arguments in a convincing way that will appeal to non-hysterics.

          2. The Democrats want to make Mr. and Mrs. Smith, parents of two children, pay for Miss Jones’ goodies. Money that the Smiths could use to feed their children. Why do the Democrats want to take food out of the mouths of children and starve them?

    2. It’s the same sort of situation as libertarians and mass transit. Libertarians aren’t opposed to mass transit; they’re opposed to government-run mass transit. By the same token, we’re not opposed to low-cost tiny houses that poor people can afford; we know that the government is going to get their dirty paws in it and completely fuck it up.

  5. Kinda Related: Obama Nationalizes Mountain Range…..3772/posts

    I’m sure it’s all constitutional.

  6. Dude this looks like its gonna be really good. WOw.

  7. my co-worker’s mother makes $71 /hr on the laptop . She has been unemployed for 9 months but last month her payment was $17334 just working on the laptop for a few hours. published here

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