The Volokh Conspiracy

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Volokh Conspiracy Gets Results on Immigration and Zoning Policy

Federal and New York City officials recently adopted policy changes on migrant work permits and zoning reform similar to those advocated here (though probably not because I advocated them!)..


New York Mayor Eric Adams
New York City Mayor Eric Adams. (Michael Brochstein/ZUMAPRESS/Newscom)


On August 17, I wrote a Volokh Conspiracy post explaining how New York City's migrant shelter crisis could be alleviated by a combination of letting migrants work legally and cutting back on zoning rules that block construction of new housing. Less than a month later, on September 20, the Biden administration granted Temporary Protected Status (TPS)  to almost 500,000 Venezuelan migrants in the United States; Venezuelans are a large proportion of new migrants in New York and other major cities. And TPS includes the right to work legally. Administration officials must have read my post and seen the light!

The day after the feds announced their new Venezuelan TPS policy, New York City Mayor Eric Adams proposed the most sweeping NYC zoning reform in many decades. If enacted by the New York city council, it would allow the construction of many thousands of new housing units throughout the City, by—among other things—allowing construction of larger apartment buildings, letting homeowners add second units on their lots, and scrapping parking mandates for new housing construction. Adams' speech announcing the proposal forcefully denounces exclusionary zoning and explains how it stifles development, promotes racial segregation, and harms immigrants and natives alike. He must be a regular VC reader, too! I've been saying these sorts of things for years.

In reality, it's highly unlikely my advocacy had any meaningful effect on either Biden's actions or Adams'. The former is likely the result of sustained pressure by various Democratic officials and policy experts (including Mayor Adams), who have been pushing Biden to let asylum-seeking migrants have immediate access for work permits (as opposed to the traditional policy of making them wait six months or more). Adams' policy is part of a broader struggle over exclusionary zoning being waged across the country. But, whatever the reason, it's a good thing Biden and Adams took these important steps in the right direction.

But much more remains to be done. Venezuelans are not the only migrants fleeing horrible violence and socialist oppression who need work permits in order to support themselves and benefit our economy. Many Cubans, Nicaraguans, and others are in much the same position. Biden should grant TPS status to them, as well.

In the long run, Congress should pass adjustment acts giving these groups permanent residency and work rights, as has been done for many others  fleeing war and oppressive socialist regimes in the past. That will benefit the migrants themselves, bolster the US economy, and strengthen our position in the international war of ideas against socialist dictatorships and other enemies.

On the zoning side, I am not sure that Adams' proposed reforms go far enough. It would be better to simply allow property owners to build whatever kinds of housing they want, subject to minimum safety and public health standards.  That would enable significantly more construction than Adams' more limited (though still extensive) proposals. It would also be a valuable boost to property rights. In New York, as in many other jurisdictions, zoning restrictions are the single biggest constraint on property owners' rights to use their land as they see fit.

Finally, as noted in my August post, NYC would also do well to end its guaranteed shelter policy, which creates bad incentives for migrants and native-born Americans alike. Rather than offering free shelter at taxpayer expense, local and federal governments should instead let people work to support themselves, and let property owners build new housing to accommodate them. Both Adams and New York Governor Kathy Hochul have come out in favor of ending or at least limiting the shelter guarantee. Hopefully, that policy will be curtailed and eventually phased out.