Housing Policy

Is There a Democratic Plot To Abolish the Suburbs? Don't Believe It.

Removing single-family zoning will not dismantle the suburbs, but it will dismantle the ability of NIMBYs to use the government to control other people's property.


As Republicans battle Democratic electoral advances in the nation's politically pivotal suburbs, they've been sounding the alarms about a liberal plot to dismantle our beloved single-family neighborhoods. For instance, the conservative National Review in June declared, "Biden and Dems are set to abolish the suburbs."

This would be shocking if true, rather than a transparent attempt to scare soccer moms into voting for the GOP. "For the past three years, the state senator who represents Speaker Nancy Pelosi's San Francisco has led a push to abolish single-family zoning in California," wrote President Donald Trump and Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson, in a Wall Street Journal column last month. Good grief.

I've long chronicled the disastrous development policies that California's Democrats have pursued. These include excessive fees, regulations, slow-growth rules and mandates that quash housing construction and hike prices. In their battle against climate change, they have backed urban-growth boundaries that set aside vast tracts of land—and attempt to force new construction into a high-density urban footprint.

Furthermore, the state's Democrats—and even many Republicans—had backed the state's now-defunct redevelopment agencies. Those relics of the 1950s urban-renewal era gave local officials the power to play real-life SimCity (a city-building videogame) in their communities, whereby they subsidize favored developers and abuse eminent domain in a perverse quest to grab tax revenue and remake their communities as they choose.

California has among the highest home prices and poverty rates in America thanks in part to such restrictions on housing. So there's plenty of fodder for Republicans who want to take on Democrats' misguided land-use policies. It's ironic, though, that they have chosen to take a stand against the one development issue where many Democrats are on the mark.

Let's start with semantics. Eliminating single-family zoning does not ban the construction of single-family homes. We should banish the idea's supporters to the nether reaches of the ugliest imaginable tract suburb for their failure to properly label this modest change. Single-family zoning allows only the construction of single-family homes. Eliminating it, as Oregon has done, allows the construction of other things in addition to single-family homes.

Trump and Carson were referring to Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco, who most recently authored the now-defunct Senate Bill 1120, which would allow the construction of duplexes in suburban areas. The senator is wrong on most state policy issues, but he is right about this particular matter. Here, he was championing fewer regulations, freer markets, more consumer choice, and less government micromanagement.

That National Review column argued that candidate Biden is embracing an end to single-family zoning, the creation of "little downtowns" in the suburbs, and an Obama-era housing rule that requires local governments that receive federal housing funds to identify fair-housing barriers. He believes this package will mean "the end of meaningful choice in how Americans can live."

I thought he was kidding. I like the suburbs, but the government enforces zoning specifically to limit any meaningful choice and to control what other people do on their own property. "All zoning is exclusionary, and is expected to be exclusionary; that is its purpose," wrote the late Bernard Siegan, a prominent free-market academic.

I rarely agree with any federal housing edicts, but what's wrong with "little downtowns," provided they aren't created with subsidies and eminent domain? Old Towne Orange, downtown Fullerton and Old Pasadena are fabulous attractions—and hardly something to fear. Less zoning leads to more of those places. More zoning leads to endless big-box shopping centers. I've got nothing against the latter, but we shouldn't artificially limit the former.

My neighborhood allows the construction of second units and has done so for years. Instead of a suburban-geddon, we simply have more neighbors who have a place for their elderly parents and adult children. That's how neighborhoods largely operated in the United States until people realized they could lobby the government to zone out whatever it is they don't like.

I want to rebut a point raised by my Southern California News Group colleague, Susan Shelley, who is an opponent of the Wiener bill. When people ask her what to say to someone who complains that they can't afford to live in, say, Pasadena, she offered this answer in a recent column: "Someone who can't afford Pasadena will have to live somewhere else, or earn enough money to live in Pasadena, or share the costs of living in Pasadena with others."

Of course, people don't have a right to live anywhere they want unless they have enough money to do so. But one key reason that many people can't live there is because Californians back restrictive zoning laws that limit housing supply and drive up prices. Removing single-family zoning will not "dismantle the suburbs," but it will dismantle the ability of the "get off my lawn" crowd to use the government to control other people's property.

This column was first published in the Orange County Register.