Sunday, June 29, 2008

Chronicle Article on Houston Housing

Will Holder, President of Trendmaker Homes in Houston, has a good article in today's Houston Chronicle on the economic benefits of Houston's lack of land use regulations. Read the article by clicking here.

I do disagree with Mr. Holder that Houston is an "out-of-control" city. The controls manifest in Houston are private, voluntary, and contractual. Because of this, developers, builders, and home owners can respond quickly to changes in the market. Each party can pursue his own self-interest without seeking government permission.

While these economic benefits are very real and important, the primary objection to land use regulations is moral in nature. Land use regulations involve an initiation of force on the part of government, and by their very nature constitute a violation of individual rights.

© J. Brian Phillips

Airport Zoning

Reacting to a federal mandate, city officials are developing zoning-like restrictions around Houston’s airports. Click here to read the Chronicle story.

Janet Lee Westphal submitted the following letter to the Chronicle:

In your article “City moves closer to first zoning law,” I was outraged to learn that the City Council and Mayor White are just going to deliberately ignore the wishes of Houstonians and blithely let the FAA violate the property rights of Houstonians by creating zoning around the airports.

Instead of going along with the FAA, the City Council and Mayor White should have the
courage to stand up to the FAA and let them know that Houstonians won’t accept
zoning in any form. Houstonians have defeated zoning laws on three different occasions because they realize that zoning will violate their rights to do with
their property as they see fit.

Does the City Council think that by calling it another name (land use regulation) that citizens won’t recognize it for what it is—a blatant attempt by government officials to tell home owners, business owners, and developers what they can and cannot do with their property? Existing homeowners and businesses throughout Houston should contact their City Council member and voice their concern.

Once the city government starts passing zoning regulations, not only will the people in these airport regions no longer have a right to decide what they’ll do with their property, but who’s going to stop the city government from limiting zoning to just these areas?

Janet Lee Westphal

Janet's letter was published in the Houston Chronicle on June 30, 2008.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Collectivism and the Neighborhood

We hear lots of talk about protecting neighborhoods. This is fine in and of itself. Protecting neighborhoods, like having clean air and clean water, is something that most people can support.

But there is more to the picture than simply maintaining certain standards or reducing crime when zoning advocates speak of protecting neighborhoods. Underlying their arguments is a very ugly premise—collectivism.

Collectivism holds that the individual is subservient to the group—the collective. It holds that individuals must sacrifice for the group, that the welfare of the group is more important than the welfare of the individual.

In the case of zoning, the particular group in question is alternately the neighborhood or the community. When convenient and expedient, zoning advocates focus on a small group—the neighborhood. When convenient and expedient, zoning advocates focus on a larger group—the entire community. In either case, the group is what matters.

Collectivism rests on the premise that morality consists of service to others, of sacrificing one's values to others. Under this premise one’s moral stature is determined by one’s willingness to place the interests of others before one’s own interests. Under this premise, self-sacrifice is regarded as a moral imperative.

Collectivism is the political expression of self-sacrifice. If one accepts self-sacrifice as a moral ideal, then anyone who refuses to do so is regarded as immoral. If one accepts self-sacrifice as a moral ideal, it is acceptable and proper to force others to act morally—i.e., to force others to sacrifice their values to others.

This is precisely what zoning does. Zoning uses government force to dictate land use within a community. Zoning forces individuals to sacrifice their values to those of the group. Zoning treats individuals as sacrificial animals, whose lives may be destroyed for the “public welfare”, the “common good”, or some other meaningless bromide.

The truth is, each individual has a moral right to pursue his values without interference from others, so long as he respects their mutual rights. Each individual has a moral right to pursue his own happiness. Each individual has a right to live for himself, without apology to others, and without their permission.

Only when the morality of self-sacrifice is rejected can Houston finally reject zoning. Only when Houstonians embrace the idea that they have a right to live for their own happiness--that is, rational self-interest-- can we put an end to the endless claims that we do otherwise.

© J. Brian Phillips 2008

Monday, June 23, 2008

Property and Freedom

Bernard H. Siegan’s book, Property and Freedom, (Transaction Publishers 1997) provides a comprehensive overview of key Supreme Court cases impacting property rights. While the book can be dry at times, it is a valuable contribution to our understanding of the gradual erosion of those rights.

Of particular interest is the section titled “Zoning: Political Control of Property”. Siegan states that, while zoning officials are charged with promoting the “public good”, the “dominant factors in zoning are public pressure and political influence…” (p. 179) He goes on to write:

For local legislators, the most important factors influencing their judgment in zoning matters appear to be the number and influence of the people who object to a proposal, a new rule, or an amendment to an old one. (p. 180)

In other words, political expediency is rule of the day. Zoning officials focus their concerns on appeasing the noisiest gang. More importantly, the gang members do not own the property in question, yet their voice gets higher consideration than that of the rightful owner.

Siegan later writes that zoning officials do not react to market conditions as businessmen do, and therefore “tend to allow development where it is not feasible and to prohibit where it is.” (p. 188) Insulated from the consequences of their decisions, zoning officials have no reason to be concerned about the wisdom of their decisions. In fact, they are mini-dictators who can impose their will on the community. Where business owners suffer if they make a bad decision, zoning officials do not.

Invariably, the original zoning plan requires modification as market conditions, building techniques, and other criteria change. What starts as a small and simple zoning ordinance will “grow into very complex and complicated” ordinance. (p. 189) Siegan notes that there are two reasons for this.

The first is that zoning never delivers on its promises. In addition, because zoning distorts the market, zoning actually creates new problems. To fix the problems created by zoning, officials add to the complexity of their edicts.

The second “reason for the proliferation of zoning regulations is that the process is a battlefield for warring interest groups.” (p. 189) Interest groups are notorious for using the zoning process to push their particular agenda. And because zoning officials oil the squeaky wheel, the loudest gang is likely to get their way.

But we don’t need Siegan’s book to know this. In the 1990’s when Houston last debated zoning, the papers were regularly filled with stories of interest groups arguing over the zoning plan. Neighbors fought neighbors over the use of land only one, or neither, owned.

While I disagree with much of Siegen’s commentary—for example, he implies that zoning would be acceptable if it were truly democratic—the book provides an interesting and valuable look at the topic of property rights.

© J. Brian Phillips

Thursday, June 19, 2008

The Nation’s Freest City

Houston has been derided for years because of its lack of zoning. Houston has been called backward, ugly, and far worse things. And recently, two national publications—Money and Kiplinger’s Personal Finance— have called Houston the best city in the nation in which to live. See L.M. Sixel’s Houston Chronicle article for more details.

Among the reasons for the ratings are our relatively stable housing market, our certainly affordable housing, and our growing economy. Interestingly, the cities that zoning advocates would have us emulate are suffering from a collapsing real estate market, exorbitantly expensive housing, and a loss of jobs.

Even a cursory examination of history or recent events demonstrates, time after time, that freedom—i.e., the absence of government coercion—results in a more stable and vibrant economy.

Some may claim that the rising price of oil is the cause for our current economic situation. At best this is naïve, and at worst intellectually dishonest.

In the mid-1980’s the Houston economy suffered when oil prices dropped. Yet, the economy quickly recovered as businesses adjusted. Houston’s housing has been among the most affordable in the nation for decades, during good times and bad in the oil patch. Houston’s economy has grown for decades, regardless of the price of oil.

The reason is freedom. Houston is arguably the freest city in the freest nation on Earth. Freedom allows individuals to pursue their values without interference from others. Freedom allows individuals to adjust to changing market conditions without seeking government permission to do so.

Advocates of land use restrictions argue that government coercion is necessary to improve our quality of life, protect our neighborhoods, and a myriad of other nebulous promises. Obviously, zoning hasn’t done such things in those cities now suffering from economic turmoil.

But Houston’s economic successes are only the practical consequences of freedom. The real justification for lack of zoning is moral—each individual has a moral right to pursue his values without interference from others, so long as he respects their mutual rights.

I have long been proud to call Houston my home. I have long called Houston the freest city in America. And now I am even more proud that my city is considered the best in the nation. It is the best city in the nation, because it is the freest.

© J. Brian Phillips 2008

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Zoning and the Cost of Housing

Over the years numerous studies have looked at the impact that zoning and other land use controls have on the cost of housing. One of the most recent was published in 2002 by Edward Glaeser of Harvard University and Joseph Gyourko of the University of Pennsylvania.

Like most previous studies, they found that zoning and other land use restrictions contribute significantly to the cost of housing. The authors concluded:

The bulk of the evidence that we have marshaled suggests that zoning and other land-use controls are more responsible for high prices where we see them… Measures of zoning strictness are highly correlated with high prices. While all of our evidence is suggestive, not definitive, it seems to suggest that land-use regulation is responsible for high housing costs where they exist.

You can read the full report by Clicking Here.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

The Voiceless Victims

Many studies have found that zoning and other land use controls increase the cost of housing. This is consistent with the basic economic truth that when a supply is arbitrarily limited the price for that item will increase.

The costs imposed by zoning go beyond supply and demand. Bureaucratic delays, legal and permit fees, "impact fees", etc. also impose additional costs upon a developer. These costs are ultimately passed on to consumers, in the form of higher housing costs.

Higher housing costs are not limited to single-family homes. Zoning has the same affects on apartment complexes and other multi-family homes. In addition, most zoning ordinances place strict limits on high density development, which further reduces the available land for such projects. Again, both the limited supply of land and the fees and delays imposed by zoning increase the price of rental housing.

Those most affected by this reduced affordability are the poor, the middle-class, and first-time buyers. Unfortunately, these individuals seldom realize that zoning is the reason they cannot afford to purchase a home. They are the hidden and voiceless victims of zoning.

Consider the Ashby High Rise. The project has already been delayed for months because of protesting neighbors and a pandering City Hall. At one point the City indicated that it might accept a “compromise”—a smaller version of the project.

Regardless, the developers have sustained additional costs because of the delays. A smaller project will invariably mean reduced economies, i.e., higher per unit costs. All of these additional costs will ultimately be passed on to the tenants and/ or buyers of the units in the building. Which means, the affordability of the housing will be reduced.

Perspective purchasers and tenants may not even be aware of the current situation. Consequently, they have no voice in the process. (I hasten to add that nobody but the developers should have a voice in the process.) Yet, they could find themselves a victim of a “debate” that occurred without their knowledge, consent, or input. They too are the voiceless victims.

© J. Brian Phillips 2008

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Rights and Responsibility

The freedom to pursue one’s values carries with it the responsibility to accept the consequences of those actions. This seems to be lost on many zoning advocates.

A right pertains to action and the consequences of that action. It is not a guarantee that one’s actions will be successful. It simply means that one may act without intervention from others and reap the reward or suffer the consequences of those actions.

Many home owners are now regretting the consequences of their decisions (such as those in Southampton and Boulevard Oaks in regard to the Ashby High Rise). They purchased a home in an area that either lacks deed restrictions, or has become better suited for other uses. In response, they seek to use government coercion to stop the rightful property owner from using his property as he chooses.

In short, they want the City government to protect them from their own decisions. Absolving themselves of responsibility for their own choices, they now seek to limit the choices of others. They fail to understand the implications of their desire to limit the choices and actions of others.

First, if they can limit the choices and actions of others, then other people have the same right to limit their choices and actions. Some may find it acceptable to have their personal freedom limited, but they have no right or moral justification to impose that view upon others.

Second, if they are not to be held accountable for their bad decisions, then they cannot rationally expect to reap the rewards of their good decisions. If an individual is to be absolved of responsibility, it pertains to all actions, not just those that don’t work out.

Third, if the government is to protect us from the consequences of our decisions then we grant to government absolute power. Every realm of life could be controlled under such a premise.

Fourth, despite the wide spread (and justified) distrust of politicians, some individuals seek to grant additional powers to those same politicians. Apparently the hypocrisy of such a position is lost on such individuals.

Life presents us with a multitude of choices, and many of our options are not good for us. If we desire freedom, then we have the responsibility to make informed decisions. And we also have the responsibility to accept the consequences of bad decisions.

An individual who seeks to relinquish responsibility for the consequences of his actions is ultimately seeking to relinquish the option to decide for himself. He seeks to allow others to decide for him. This alone is morally reprehensible. That he often seeks to impose this degradation upon others reveals the monstrous nature of his soul.

© J. Brian Phillips 2008