Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Houston’s Housing Market

While many areas of the country are struggling through plummeting real estate values and the collapse of their building industry, Houston has escaped these travails. A large contributing factor is the city’s lack of zoning, which allows developers and property owners to react to market conditions without securing government permission.

Houston Chronicle columnist Loren Steffy recently wrote about this. A report issued by the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas found “that a key reason Houston has avoided much of the housing crisis is because zoning keeps home prices higher”. You can read the entire article by clicking here. A longer article appeared in the May 28, 2008 Houston Chronicle.

Economic arguments against zoning are important. The economic consequences of zoning and other land use restrictions are one of the practical consequences of such laws. But the primary objection to zoning is moral in nature.

Zoning represents an initiation of force against the citizens of a community. Zoning imposes the values of some upon the entire community, and it is backed by government coercion. Zoning is a violation of individual rights, i.e., the right of each individual to pursue his values without intervention from others, including the government.

Houston’s housing market has remained affordable and vibrant because individuals have enjoyed relative freedom in land use. Developers and property owners have the freedom to make choices in land use, and consumers have the freedom to embrace or reject those uses. Unlike government bureaucrats, individuals react quickly and rationally to their personal values.

Houston has stood as a shining example of freedom throughout its history. Our current housing market is just one more consequence of that freedom.

© J. Brian Phillips 2008

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Zoning Horror Stories

Zoning advocates make many claims about the benefits of imposing land use restrictions on property owners. But they conveniently ignore both the immorality and destructive consequences of zoning. In other cities, zoning has destroyed lives, wrecked dreams, and harmed individuals. The same will ultimately happen in Houston if zoning is enacted.

In Mt. Laurel, New Jersey, zoning was systematically used during the late 1970s and early 1980s to drive the town's small black population out of the community

An elderly couple in Provo, Utah wanted to hire a live-in caretaker to help them maintain their home and assist them with health issues. A zoning ordinance allows home owners to have live-in help, but not a second kitchen. They were forced to abandon their plans.

In Fairfax, VA a golf range owner was jailed for 98 days and fined $48,000 for violating a zoning ordinance pertaining to landscaping. A lien was also placed on his property.

A Santa Monica, CA resident sought to build an addition to his home. After 15 months and $30,000 in expenses, he abandoned the project because of continued delays imposed by the City’s Planning Department.

These stories are not isolated examples. They occur in every city with zoning. The very nature of zoning vests zoning officials with immense powers and those powers are often used to inflict harm on citizens.

Zoning proponents may call the examples cited above “scare tactics”. They may claim that such things would not happen in Houston. They may claim that zoning officials in Houston will not succumb to the temptations offered by such political power.

Such claims however, are an evasion of the fact that there are principles which underlie zoning, and those principles can be used to predict the consequences of zoning in Houston. Zoning, by its very nature, is a violation of property rights and destructive to human welfare.

Some Houstonians may have benevolent intentions by proposing a zoning ordinance. They may believe that zoning will improve Houston. But can they guarantee that their successors will wield power with benevolence and good intentions? Can they guarantee that future zoning officials will not use their power for malicious purposes?

If they cannot make such a guarantee—which they can’t—we must question their motivations. We must wonder why they would desire such absolute control over land use when the horrors of zoning are so well documented. We must wonder why they seek to grant such power to successors whose motivations are unknown. We must wonder why.

The premise underlying zoning is that individuals should sacrifice their values for the “welfare” of the community. This is precisely what occurs in every city that has zoning. When individuals do not do so willingly, they are jailed, fined, and/ or their property is seized.

To deny the horrors of zoning is intellectually dishonest. To pretend that some Houstonians will not be forced to sacrifice their values is equally dishonest. There will be victims of zoning.

Are you willing to be one of those victims? We aren’t.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Democracy and Rights

The newest survey by Rice University professor Dr. Stephen Klineberg shows that a majority of Houstonians’ favor additional land use restrictions. The results are being used to fuel a renewed debate over zoning and other land use controls. However, the debate is largely founded on a false premise. Those in favor of expanded government control over land use, and many of those opposed, imply that the desires of the majority should prevail. If the majority wants more restrictions, then it is right and proper. Some may argue that this is simply democracy in action. However, our Founding Fathers recognized that democracy is nothing more than a tyranny of the masses:

“There is no maxim, in my opinion, which is more liable to be misapplied, and which, therefore, more needs elucidation, than the current one, that the interest of the majority is the political standard of right and wrong.” James Madison

“Democracy... while it lasts is more bloody than either [aristocracy or monarchy]. Remember, democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There is never a democracy that did not commit suicide.” John Adams

“A democracy is nothing more than mob rule, where fifty-one percent of the people may take away the rights of the other forty-nine.” Thomas Jefferson

Despite common perceptions, the Founders did not establish a democracy, but a constitutional republic. The Founders sought to protect the rights of individuals from the whims and passions of the majority. The individual, after all, is the smallest minority.

One of the most fundamental of rights is the right to property, that is, the right to own, use, and dispose of material values. The right to property means that the owner may use his property as he chooses, without interference from others. Of course, he must respect the mutual rights of others.

Those rights are not subject to a vote. The number of people espousing an idea, as James Madison wrote, does not determine the truth of that idea or the standard of right and wrong. The rights of the individual, including property rights, are sacrosanct.

Unlimited majority rule—i.e., democracy—allows the majority to do as it pleases because it is the majority. Principles such as individual rights get trampled in the process.

Our Founders understood the evils of democracy. It is time that we did so as well.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

I Don’t Like It

Many zoning advocates are confusing their dislike of a property’s use with an infringement of their rights. They believe that their dislike is sufficient justification to restrict the use of that property. They confuse their alleged psychological harm with an actual physical harm, and in response seek to use the power of government to exact real harm on others.

Consider the Ashby High Rise for example. Home owners in the area don’t like the proposed project. Despite the other arguments they have presented, this is the essence of their position. They have claimed that the high rise will ruin their “quality of life” and that it is “out of character with the neighborhood”.

But they fail to tell us what standard of “quality” and “character” they are using. They assert these claims as if their standards are known and accepted by all Houstonians. The fact that the high rise—or the use of any other parcel of land—is controversial demonstrates the fallacy of this position. Their standards are not universally accepted.

This does not diminish their ire. Acting like little children, they stomp their feet all the way to City Hall, demanding that Councilmembers do something. And City Hall has been all too happy to accommodate this noisy gang.

Freedom means the right to pursue our values without intervention from others. It also means that we must respect the mutual rights of others to do likewise. Sometimes we will do things that others don’t like, and sometimes they will do things that we don’t like. But in neither case is it morally justifiable to use force to stop actions simply because we don’t like them.

If this were a morally legitimate standard, virtually every Houstonian could make a claim against every other Houstonian. There would literally be no end to the demands made upon government to stop actions that someone finds offensive.

An individual’s rights can only be violated through the initiation of force. Those who seek to use government coercion because they don’t like something are no different from those who use private force to seize something that they do like. Both are thugs. And when a bunch of like-minded people act together, they become a gang. Frankly, I don’t like that.

Friday, May 9, 2008

Do as I Say, Not as I Do

The home owners in Southampton and Boulevard Oaks are currently fighting 2 proposed construction projects near their neighborhoods—the Ashby High Rise and the expansion of a medical clinic.

It is sadly ironic that the reason they are fighting the latter is the tactic they are using against the former.

A document on the web site for the Southampton Civic Club states the reason the club is fighting the Methodist Medical Clinic expansion. In part, that document states that Methodist could extinguish existing deed restrictions and acquire property “by ‘taking’ land forcibly through condemnation (a formal court proceeding)”. In other words, Methodist could use legal procedures to force property owners to “sell” their land.

A “sale” under such conditions is a fraud. A legitimate sale involves the voluntary consent of all parties. A “sale” that is forced through government coercion is hardly voluntary. Which means, the rights of such property owners are violated. (The only objective means for violating an individual’s rights is through the initiation of force.)

While the residents of these two communities object to such tactics being used against them, they are more than willing to use the same tactics against the developers of the Ashby High Rise.
Both communities are seeking the help of City Hall to stop the project. The Mayor has declared that the project will not be built. At one point the City was drafting an ordinance aimed specifically at stopping this project. Regardless of the specifics, the home owners are willing to use coercion against the developers to stop the project.

In the case of Methodist, they are fighting the project because they fear that government force will be used to remove them from their homes, i.e., prevent them from using their property as they choose. In the case of the Ashby High Rise, they seek to use government force to prevent the developers from using their property as they choose.

If this weren’t such a serious issue, their hypocrisy would be absolutely hilarious.

Violating property rights is morally reprehensible. It would be wrong for Methodist to do it, and it is wrong for the civic clubs to do it.

© J. Brian Phillips 2008

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

The Cost of Freedom

For more than 60 years proponents of zoning have attempted to push their agenda on the citizens of Houston. In response, those who value their freedom and their property rights have been forced to spend their own money to defend what is rightfully theirs.

On the surface this may seem like it is just a part of the democratic process. However, like many issues revolving around zoning and land use restrictions, the truth is considerably different.

Consider, for example, that proposals to expand government power are invariably supported by government officials. Their support is not promulgated as private citizens, but as public officials. They spend their working hours and our tax dollars, promoting these plans.

This means that those who oppose a particular proposal, and those who are indifferent, are forced to provide monetary support for a particular cause. This means that an individual who opposes zoning is forced to spend his money to fight zoning, while simultaneously his money is being used to support his enemies.

It is bad enough that honest businessmen must defend their rights. It is a gross injustice when their own money is used against them.

This however, does not stop pro-zoners from attacking those businessmen. For example, after the 1993 referendum, zoning advocates made an issue of the money spend by their opponents. (Herman Lauhoff, in an OpEd article in The Houston Post in November 1994, wrote that anti-zoners outspent zoning proponents in the November 1993 referendum by 3-to-1.1 Similar claims had been made previously by zoning advocate Brandy Wolf, 2 in an editorial in The Houston Post, 3 by Post columnist Tom Kennedy,4 by Chronicle columnist Lori Rodriguez, 5 and others. 6)

The Houston Post reported at the time that anti-zoners spent $500,000. This pales in comparison to the millions spent by the City to develop a zoning plan and promote it. (The budget for the Planning and Zoning Commission in 1992 alone was over $6 million.) Zoning advocates refused to acknowledge that much of the money used to support their cause came from those who oppose it, while zoning opponents were required to raise all of their funds through voluntary contributions.

But this is not a surprise. Zoning advocates seek to use force to impose their ideas and values upon all Houstonians. And they act accordingly—they force their opponents to provide monetary support for their agenda. Those who seek freedom—the right to engage in voluntary exchanges—also act in accordance with their values. They raise their money voluntarily.

In short, pro-zoners sought to expand the power of government, and used government to do so. Their opponents relied on the voluntary choices of individuals, and they were attacked for doing so.

It may be cliché, but those who refuse to learn from history are doomed to repeat. Pro-zoners will change their words, but they won’t change their tactics.

1. Herman Lauhoff, The Houston Post, "City can't stand harm that lack of comprehensive zoning causes," 6 November1994.
2. Karen Weintraub, The Houston Post, "Zoning goes down for 3rd time," 3 November 1993,pA1.
3. "Twilight for Zoning," The Houston Post, November 3, 1993, p26A.
4. Tom Kennedy, The Houston Post, "You go for lies? I got some here," 7 November 1993.
5. Lori Rodriguez, Houston Chronicle, "Can we live with the zoning vote?," 6 November 1993, pA33.
6. Karen Weintraub, The Houston Post, "Zoning opponents outspend backers by 4-to-1," 26 October 1993, pA9.

© J. Brian Phillips 2008

Sunday, May 4, 2008

The Public Good

Advocates of land use restrictions use many different justifications for their plans. One of the most common is the “public good” or the “common welfare”. On the surface such arguments might seem plausible, but a deeper examination reveals the real meaning of such bromides.

There is no such entity as “the public”. The public consists of everyone, that is, all individuals. The “public good” then, would be that which is good for all individuals.

Individuals have a wide range of values and interests. There is a wide range of things that we, as individuals, regard as good. Some value baseball, others value the ballet. Some value picnics in the park, others value a back yard cook out. Some value gardening, others value lazy weekends.

In a free society individuals can pursue their values without interference from others, so long as they respect the mutual rights of others. Each of us can choose our own “good” and seek to achieve it. Freedom is the only “public good”. That is, the right of each individual to pursue his own values is the only good that applies to all individuals in a political context.

But this is not the meaning intended by those who speak of the “public good”. They are not promoting individual freedom, but its opposite.

The “public good” is always raised to justify a government proposal. Since there is never unanimous support for any proposal, this means that the “good” of some individuals will usurp that of other individuals. Which means, some individuals may impose their values upon others.

This is not mere hyperbole. Government is the only agent with a legal monopoly on the use of force. Those who disobey government edicts are met with force—they are arrested or their property is seized. When some individuals use government to enact their values into law, they are using force against their fellow citizens.

The number of individuals supporting a proposal does not change this principle. No individual, and no group of individuals, has a moral right to initiate force against another individual.

In 2009 Houstonians will be asked to reject this truth. Houstonians will be asked to endorse more restrictive land use controls. Much more is at stake than dirt or steel. Our values, as individuals and as a city, will be tested. Our answer will determine whether we continue to respect individual freedom.

© J. Brian Phillips 2008