Marohn: End Single-Family Zoning

A prominent conservative voice in the urban planning debate makes the case for repealing the single-family zoning status quo.

2 minute read

July 8, 2020, 7:00 AM PDT

By James Brasuell @CasualBrasuell


Fringe Development

Alan Sheldon / Shutterstock

Charles Marohn departs temporarily from Strong Towns to write an opinion piece for the American Conservative advocating for the end to single-family zoning, responding at least in part to a recent opinion piece by Stanley Kurtz that caught President Trump's eye and inspired a rant accusing the Democratic party of working to destroy the suburbs.

Marohn provides context:

What is allegedly at stake is the ability of cities to artificially restrict the development of property through zoning. If you’re conservative in your disposition but don’t know Kurtz or this line of reasoning, you might assume that he is against zoning regulations. After all, there is no greater distortion of the market than local zoning codes, and there are few bureaucracies doing more harm to property rights and freedom than local zoning offices.

That assumption would be wrong. What is at stake here for Kurtz is the sanctity of single-family zoning, the ability of suburban governments to deploy this repressive land regulation on America’s suburban development pattern.

Marohn traces all of Kurtz's fears about the Democrats threatening the suburban status quo to the hypocrisy of the conservative argument on the subject. So, if Democrats threaten to withhold transportation funding until suburbs allow other kinds of residential development in single-family neighborhoods, suburbs will only find it impossible to resist that disincentive because they are dependent on federal support—the inefficiencies of single-family zoning cause the dependency of the suburbs.

The suburbs run on federal subsidies. Without them, America’s suburbs would have to become more financially productive. They would need to get greater returns per foot on public infrastructure investment. That would mean repealing repressive zoning regulations, allowing the market to respond to supply and demand signals for housing. It would also mean allowing the “little downtowns” Kurtz fears to form where demand for them exists. Isn’t that what is supposed to happen with self-government and local control?

The only truly conservative step for suburbs to take, according to Marohn? Ending single-family zoning. Given that the progressive left has "discovered" the racist underpinnings of single-family zoningaccording to Marohn, land use regulation reform that ends single-family zoning offers a rare chance for bi-partisan collaboration, and common cause.

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