The best book on zoning and NIMBYism you’ve never read might well be The Housing Bias by Paul Boudreaux. The author is a law professor, but you’d be forgiven for thinking he’s a journalist. His writing is engaging – and occasionally funny – and he does what is unthinkable for many scholars: drives to various places to interview people who are engaged in the (legal) drama of what we now call “the housing crisis.”
Boudreaux had the misfortune of being ahead of his time. The housing market was so soft in 2011 that his book landed with nary a sound. A quick web search turned up no book reviews besides the publisher’s blurbs. The book (and you’ll be forgiven if you stop reading right here) will set you back.
That’s unfortunate. Just a few years later, the book would have connected with passions shared by the rapidly growing YIMBY movement and a publisher would have marketed it to the masses.
Boudreaux’s thesis is that “the laws that govern our use of land are biased in favor of one specific group of Americans—affluent, home-owning families—who least need the government’s help.” He keeps his ideological cards close to the vest. But that’s the point: one need not lean left or right to want to stop using the power of the state to comfort the comfortable and afflict the afflicted.
The first chapter is the most important, because it lays out the foundation for all that local governments do, good and bad, in land use: the police power. He’s writing from Manassas, Virginia, where “restaurants with Aztec pyramids on them” telegraph the large Hispanic immigrant community. A vocal minority opposed this local immigration, and pressured local governments to stop it. Of course, the city doesn’t issue passports, but the police power allows local governments to make life uncomfortable for an unwelcome minority in many ways.
In the second chapter, Boudreaux meets the last holdout in a Brooklyn condominium condemned for the megaproject anchored by the Brooklyn Nets arena. Eminent domain is a unique city power – and one that fits uneasily with the rest of book. Daniel Goldstein (the condo holdout) is the sort of affluent homeowner in whose favor the system is biased. The appearance of Robert Moses’ successors is a good reminder that “not in my backyard” was once a heroic rallying cry of Davids fighting Goliaths.
The book moves along with a history of the Mount Laurel decisions (Chapter 3) and a retired farmer in Michigan fighting large lot zoning. For housing scholars and advocates, most of the material is not new, but it’s refreshed and worth reading from a muckraking law professor’s point of view. And (if you’ve got a spare Benjamin) it’s the perfect book to buy for the friend who promises to read just one book on housing if it will only shut you up.
Back to the story: the final chapter, set in Los Angeles and narrating the political difficulty of infill development, ends on a dour note like the four before it. A modest attempt to ease permitting for accessory dwelling units (ADUs) in LA was politically annihilated. This echoes the setbacks in Manassas, where Hispanics quietly moved away; Brooklyn, where Daniel Goldstein took a buyout; New Jersey, where Governor Chris Christie announced a “funeral” for a Mount Laurel program; and Michigan, where the farmer lost his court case.
A decade later, we know that’s not where LA’s story ends. California State Senator Bob Wieckowski led an ADU enfilade in Sacramento that succeeded while his colleague Scott Wiener’s frontal assaults on single family zoning occupied the opposition. A series of bills hammered away at the limits California cities could place on ADUs.
As a result, the City of Los Angeles issued 6,747 ADU permits in 2019, up from 80 in 2016.
The story of America’s housing bias is still being written. And if the 2020s really do bring a revolution in housing policy and the urban environment, I hope Paul Boudreaux writes a book about it.