Editor: David Reiss
Brooklyn Law School

January 13, 2016

Zoning Rules and Income Inequality

By David Reiss

Bill Fischel photo 2015

Bill Fischel

William Fischel, a preeminent land use scholar, has recently published Zoning Rules!: The Economics of Land Use Regulation. The abstract for the book reads,

Zoning has for a century enabled cities to chart their own course. It is a useful and popular institution, enabling homeowners to protect their main investment and provide safe neighborhoods. As home values have soared in recent years, however, this protection has accelerated to the degree that new housing development has become unreasonably difficult and costly. The widespread Not In My Backyard (NIMBY) syndrome is driven by voters’ excessive concern about their home values and creates barriers to growth that reach beyond individual communities. The barriers contribute to suburban sprawl, entrench income and racial segregation, retard regional immigration to the most productive cities, add to national wealth inequality, and slow the growth of the American economy. Some state, federal, and judicial interventions to control local zoning have done more harm than good. More effective approaches would moderate voters’ demand for local-land use regulation—by, for example, curtailing federal tax subsidies to owner-occupied housing.

The book engages with many other leading land use scholars like Edward Glaeser, Robert Ellickson and Vicki Been so the reader gets a good sense of what is at stake in contemporary land use debates.

I was particularly intrigued by Fischel’s discussion of the relationship between land use policies and income inequality. He writes that, “Moving to opportunity was an important source of income equalization for the first two-thirds of the twentieth century. That migration trend has nearly stopped as a result of increased land use regulation in the high-productivity areas” on the coasts. (166-67). The book carefully parses out how such changes in land use regulation had such a big effect on people’s choices.

You can find the first chapter of Zoning Rules! here if you want to give the book a test run.


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