As regular Via Meadia readers know, onerous land-use regulations in urban areas are one of the biggest politically-imposed obstacles to economic growth and fairness. Rules limiting the housing stock—often supported by an unlikely alliance of anti-development left-wing activists and wealthy NIMBYs—dramatically drive up rents, which in turn reduces job growth by making the workforce less mobile. Restrictive zoning also drives up inequality by inflating the property values of the (disproportionately white, wealthy, and older) people who already on homes in restrictive areas, while making it ever-more difficult for striving young and middle-class people to get a foothold in the real estate market.But there’s yet another reason to liberalize housing construction rules: It’s good for the environment. As Brad Plumer writes in Vox, San Francisco is currently patting itself on the back for mandating that buildings install solar panels on their roofs, even as it maintains an extraordinarily restrictive zoning regime that dramatically increases the Bay Area’s carbon footprint:
Limits on density may reduce San Francisco’s environmental impact, but they increase emissions elsewhere in the country. That’s because the people who can live in San Francisco emit far less carbon dioxide than people living in nearby suburban areas. For one, their apartments tend to be smaller, requiring less energy for heat and electricity. And, because San Francisco is so dense, its residents drive far fewer miles, less than half that of people in nearby counties. If more people could move to San Francisco, overall emissions would go down. […]If San Francisco relaxed its restrictions and enabled, say, an additional 10,000 people to move from elsewhere in the Bay Area to the city, we could expect that to cut 79,000 metric tons of CO2 per year (to a first, crude approximation). This is three times as much CO2 as the solar panel law would save.
To us, the affordability arguments are more than sufficient to justify a dramatic rethink of land-use regulations. But to the upper-class social liberals who make policy in cities like San Francisco, perhaps the environmentalist case against zoning will be more persuasive. After all, this is a rare case where green policy and pro-growth policy both point in the same direction.