Saturday, July 26, 2008

The Seattle "Experiment"

I stumbled across a refreshingly honest editorial in the Seattle Times.

The editorial cites a study by University of Washington professor Theo Eicher, who found that land use regulations imposed by the City of Seattle and the State of Washington increased the cost of a home by $200,000! The median home price in Seattle is $450,000, which means that land use regulations increase the cost of a home by 44%.

The editorial cites numerous regulations and their impact. For example, in 2005 Seattle imposed a $15 per square foot surcharge on developers to subsidize low-income housing. That regulation alone adds $9,000 to the cost of a 600-square-foot downtown condominium.

These regulations are making housing inside the city unaffordable for the middle class. In response, they flee to the suburbs. The result is the “urban sprawl” that Houston zoning advocates decry and the Houston Chronicle uses to justify greater government planning of land use.

What is sadly ironic about this is that Seattle is demonstrating the consequences of land use regulations. While Houston’s median housing price is about one-third of that in Seattle, pro-zoners would have us emulate Seattle and impose more restrictions on land use.

Even sadder, when Houston developers seek to increase density (which reduces sprawl and long commutes) land use regulation advocates oppose that as well. See the Ashby High Rise for the most visible example.

The examples of Seattle, San Francisco, and other cities with restrictive land use controls are well known and easy to discover. Why then, do zoning advocates in Houston continue to insist that Houston will not suffer the same dire consequences? Do they really believe that basic economic principles do not apply to our city?

The truth is, they really don’t care about the economic consequences. If economic prosperity were their goal, they would advocate greater individual freedom. The goal of zoning advocates is not prosperity, or the freedom that makes it possible. Their goal is control, control over the property, and hence the lives, of all Houstonians.

But economic arguments are not the real issue. The real issue is freedom—the right to pursue one’s values without interference from others (so long as you respect the mutual rights of others). Land use regulations are an attack on freedom, in that they prevent an individual from using his property as he chooses in the pursuit of his values.

In a free society, all transactions are based on the voluntary consent of all involved parties. Pro-zoners (like all advocates of government intervention in the economy) do not like the choices that individuals sometimes make. They object to the values that some individuals pursue.

Rather than accept the right of individuals to do so, they seek to prohibit such actions. They seek to impose their values, and the ensuing actions, on others. They seek to dictate what values will be legal.

The result is what has happened in Seattle and other similar cities. The result is a higher cost of living, longer commutes, and fewer choices. The result is a loss of freedom, and everything that freedom makes possible.

© J. Brian Phillips 2008

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