Arguably, land use controls have a more widespread impact on the lives of ordinary Americans than any other regulation. These controls, typically imposed by localities, make housing more expensive and restrict the growth of America’s most successful metropolitan areas. These regulations have accreted over time with virtually no cost-benefit analysis….
America’s affordability problem is local, not national, but that doesn’t mean that land use regulations don’t have national implications. Historically, when parts of America experienced outsized economic success, they built enormous amounts of housing. New housing allowed thousands of Americans to participate in the productivity of that locality. Between 1880 and 1910, bustling Chicago’s population grew by an average of 56,000 each year. Today, San Francisco is one of the great capitals of the information age, yet from 1980 to 2010, that city’s population grew by only 4200 people per year….
Land use controls that limit the growth of such successful cities mean that Americans increasingly live in places that make it easy to build, not in places with higher levels of productivity. Hsieh and Moretti (2015) have estimated that “lowering regulatory constraints” in areas like New York and Silicon Valley would “increase U.S. GDP by 9.5%.” Whether these exact figures are correct, they provide a basis for the claim that America’s most important, and potentially costly, regulations are land use controls….
Reforming local land use controls is one of those rare areas in which the libertarian and the progressive agree. The current system restricts the freedom of the property owner, and also makes life harder for poorer Americans. The politics of zoning reform may be hard, but our land use regulations are badly in need of rethinking.