Throwing away zoning codes may be among the best ways to help America’s middle class. At Marginal Revolution, Alex Tabarrok highlights a startling statistic from a recent Economist piece on Houston’s economy and future:
Unlike most other big cities in America, Houston has no zoning code, so it is quick to respond to demand for housing and office space. Last year authorities in the Houston metropolitan area, with a population of 6.2m, issued permits to build 64,000 homes. The entire state of California, with a population of 39m, issued just 83,000.
The sprawl this regulatory regime creates is, according to the Economist, “perhaps the city’s biggest strength,” keeping housing costs low for middle class families. In contrast, housing restrictions in states like California drive out the poor and the middle class to such a degree that progressives identify housing costs as the biggest blue crisis today.As the Economist notes, Houston’s sprawl right now has a dark side, typified by its reliance on “cars and air conditioning.” But technology can help provide a solution. Telework, for example, means that some of Houston’s workers don’t have to drive to the office everyday, thereby reducing their emissions. A less dense city with minimal zoning regulations and sophisticated technology usage may be one of the best ways forward for the middle class. Alternatively, better housing regimes in big cities could preserve or increase density by, for example, making it easier to build higher, thus also lowering housing costs. Either way, it’s past time for other cities to follow Houston in limiting their zoning rules.