The Volokh Conspiracy
Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent
Tennessee-based policy analyst Justin Hayes is writing a series of articles in which he "aim[s] to explore issues that could have broader appeal among the left, right, libertarians, and centrists on multiple fronts — from economic and philosophical perspectives to constitutional considerations and beyond." The first piece in the series focuses on the issue of exclusionary zoning:
As the U.S. grapples with a deepening affordable housing crisis, YIMBY (Yes-In-My-Backyard) Groups have sprouted around the country to advocate for major reforms to the exclusionary zoning practices prevalent in most major cities. These zoning policies often prioritize single-family homes and hinder the construction of more affordable housing options for low- and middle-income residents. A 2022 paper by Jonathan Levine describes the YIMBY movement as "a loose and shifting pro-housing alliance of renters, progressives, and libertarians who hold that exclusionary land-use policies in urban and suburban areas exacerbate housing unaffordability and racial segregation and increase long-distance commuting and greenhouse-gas emissions."
These coalitions primarily focus on zoning reform within local or metropolitan jurisdictions, where traditional party and ideological lines blur, and national culture wars have a limited reach, allowing people from diverse political backgrounds to unite in this cause. After all, the YIMBY movement's overarching goal—to create an affordable place for everyone to live — is challenging to argue against, regardless of one's ideological perspective.
However, despite the undeniable merits of ending exclusionary zoning, the path forward has not been so simple. Misconceptions about increasing housing density persist and surface at zoning hearings in nearly every city, voiced by concerned residents and NIMBY (Not-In-My-Backyard) groups. Their concerns range from traffic congestion to potential overcrowding in schools and the perceived threats of crime to "community character."
Hayes goes through a list of reasons why conservatives, libertarians, and progressives all have good reason to support the YIMBY cause. He also addresses a number of common objections.
I have made similar arguments myself (including some focusing on the cross-ideological nature of the issue), and Hayes cites some of my previous writings on this topic. So too have others, such as Richard Kahlenberg. But Hayes piece is nonetheless a very helpful summary of the case from the standpoint of each of these three major ideologies.
I would add a few points to his analysis. For libertarians, it's important to emphasize not only that zoning restricts property rights, but that it is the most widespread and severe restriction on property owners' rights in the United States today, preventing millions from using their land as they wish. For progressives, I would emphasize the long history of zoning as a tool of racial and ethnic exclusion—often deliberately used for that purpose. To this day, zoning restrictions disproportionately harm blacks and Hispanics.
Finally, for conservatives, I would emphasize that reducing exclusionary zoning would greatly help the working class, including the white working class whom the GOP claims to champion (and who are increasingly that party's biggest constituency). It would do so both by enabling more working-class people to "move to opportunity" and by stimulating a vast construction boom that would create many thousands of relatively well-paying working-class jobs. As I have long emphasized, zoning reform is a major underappreciated common interest of the mostly Republican white working class and its mostly Democratic minority counterpart.
For those particularly concerned—as many conservatives are—about expanding opportunities for working-class men, I would make the obvious point that construction workers are disproportionately male (almost 94%, according to the Construction Employers Association). But expanding job opportunities in this way would also help many working and lower-middle class women, albeit less directly. They, like men, benefit from being able to move to opportunity. Plus, increasing opportunity for male construction workers pretty obviously benefits their female wives and daughters, and improves the potential marriage market for single working-class women. If you care about family values, the latter is an important consideration in an age where working-class marriage rates have plummeted.
Much more can be said. And I have in fact said more in previous publications, and hope to write more in the future. In the meantime, Hayes' article is a very helpful introduction to the subject, covering a wide range of perspectives and issues. I also look forward to his analysis of the other issues he plans to cover in his series on cross-ideological common ground.