A recent Wall Street Journal op ed combines two of my favorite topics: Franz Kafka’s The Trial and the inefficiencies of zoning. Roger Kimball explains the roadblocks he has faced in trying to repair his home after it was damaged in Hurricane Sandy. He writes:
It wasn’t until the workmen we hired had ripped apart most of the first floor that the phrase “building permit” first wafted past us. Turns out we needed one. “What, to repair our own house we need a building permit?”
Before you could get a building permit, however, you had to be approved by the Zoning Authority. And Zoning—citing FEMA regulations—would force you to bring the house “up to code,” which in many cases meant elevating the house by several feet. Now, elevating your house is very expensive and time consuming—not because of the actual raising, which takes just a day or two, but because of the required permits.
Kafka would have liked the zoning folks. There also is a limit on how high in the sky your house can be. That calculation seems to be a state secret, but it can easily happen that raising your house violates the height requirement. Which means that you can’t raise the house that you must raise if you want to repair it. Got that?
Disaster rebuilding efforts highlight the impediments that bureaucracies create for economic development, but they are far from the only time that land use regulations create kafkaesque obstacles for property owners. In The High Cost of Free Parking, Donald Shoup explains that parking requirements can create a similar effect.
When a business owner goes out of business and wants to sell his property, it’s likely that the next owner will want to operate a different type of business in the location or that parking requirements will have changed since the previous owner received a certificate of occupancy. If this new business happens to face a higher parking requirement (and the determination of parking requirements often defies reason), repurposing the building will likely be impossible, and regulations lead existing neighborhoods into blight. These bureaucratic obstacles to redevelopment not only frustrate entrepreneurs and property owners, but fuels suburbanization and urban decline.