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housing matters
Another Reason to Beat Back Zoning Restrictions

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.

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  • CaliforniaStark

    The argument that increasing density will cause a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions as a result of fewer vehicle trips was ably refuted by a University of Berkeley/Utah study, which is referred to by Wendell Cox in the following article:

    The reference to residents of San Francisco having lower carbon footprints than elsewhere ignores the fact that, like many dense urban centers, San Francisco is substantially populated by “empty nesters” — adult without children, who are willing to live in smaller residences. More families without children may be an goal of environmental zealots; but results in an increasingly aging population, which is proving economically detrimental in Japan and other nations.

    Finally, the claim that adding thousands of more housing units in San Francisco will lower housing prices ignores the fact that cities of even higher density, such as Vancouver, are not seeing any reduction in housing prices as a result of additional density:

    San Francisco is a very desirable place to live, with many high salaried workers. Also, as with Vancouver, a lot of wealthy foreigners would likely be interested in purchasing new residential units in San Francisco. This type of high market demand will result in any new housing selling at a premium price. San Francisco would not become much more affordable by turning it into the Hong Kong of North America.

    In saying this, am not defending the current land use polices and regulations in San Francisco, which are byzantine and a case study of over-regulation. But cannot accept the greenhouse gas and housing affordability arguments as a basis to reform them; how about simply arguing about their stupidity instead?

  • Andrew Allison

    Whilst onerous land-use regulations in urban areas are one of the biggest politically-imposed obstacles to economic growth, by far the biggest obstacle is the cost of land acquisition and construction; and fairness has absolute nothing to do with it. It’s about supply and demand, and in San Francisco the cost of land (for which the demand far exceeds the supply) is the biggest obstacle.

  • Wayne Lusvardi


    by Wayne Lusvardi – posted online in 2009

    Harvard economist Edward L. Glaeser asserts that people living in cities, especially in the moderate weather of California, may emit relatively less carbon than those in suburbs (see: *Help the Environment, Stay in the City,*, Feb 11 –

    Glaeser calls this the Green-Brown Paradox.

    Glaeser estimates the amount of carbon dioxide that an average household would emit from home heating, driving, electricity, and public transportation in cities versus suburbs. His major finding is that cities, especially in a moderate climate such as Southern California, emit relatively less carbon dioxide than suburbs.

    However, steering new development into coastal cities in Southern California also results in unsustainable use of water resources. Cities may emit less carbon (Green) but this forces a reliance on imported water supplies (Blue) instead of more sustainable local groundwater supplies in non-coastal areas. The real paradox is not Green vs. Brown as Glaeser asserts but Green vs. Blue.

    Glaeser fails to mention new legislation in California, Senate Bill 375, will divert new development to cities as opposed to the suburbs purportedly to reduce carbon footprints and urban sprawl and promote *smart growth.*

    Under this legislation, water will no longer be gold in California. Rather, cliches about reducing global warming and producing green power will be Californiaʼs new foolʼs gold. Los Angeles is now facing the grim reality of an 85 percent cut in imported water deliveries from Northern California through the California Aqueduct due to a court order to protect the tiny Delta Smelt fish. California should consider how embracing popular cliches about environmental protection, such as Glaeser’s, have resulted in what might be called the perfect drought, which stems more from political than natural causes.

    SB 375 requires regional planning agencies to put into place sustainable growth plans. It will require that new housing development be shifted from the urban fringe, where groundwater resources are more abundant, such as San Bernardino County and Sacramento, to highly dense urban areas near public transit and light rail lines, such as Los Angeles and Pasadena and San Francisco, where local water sources are patchy and often polluted. The environmental intent of SB 375 is to reduce auto commuter trips, air pollution and gasoline consumption.

    However, the legislation will unintentionally result in more reliance on imported water supplies from the Sacramento Delta, Mono Lake and the Colorado River for thirsty cities along Californiaʼs coastline instead of diverting development to inland areas that have more sustainable groundwater resources.

    This can be clearly seen by viewing the U.S. Geological Survey map of Groundwater Basins in California. The populous coastal areas of the state have spotty groundwater resources, while the inland areas have the most abundant water basins to sustain new development – see: (scroll down page).

    SB 375 makes no sense from even a global warming perspective. Higher temperatures are generated in dense urban areas with more buildings and pavement, and less vegetation. Conversely, suburban and urban fringe areas with less hardscape and more vegetation are generally cooler. This is called the Urban Heat Island Effect. Concentrating housing development in already highly dense urban areas will only worsen the urban heat island effect and thus increase spot global warming.

    Moreover, by virtue of shifting to reliance on imported water supplies, California will need to buy more imported coal-fired and natural gas-generated electricity to pump that water to urban centers located far from the sources of water. Glaeser doesn’t factor in the increased energy demand from imported water into his carbon footprint equation. Nor does he consider that most of the electricity for Southern California is imported from outside the state, creating an alleged carbon footprint in sparsely populated rural areas of the Southwestern United States.

    Fortunately, the new law doesnʼt yet mandate local governments to comply with the plans. No real changes are expected until regional planning agencies adopt the sustainable-communities growth policies called for in the law three years from now (in 2012). However, if cities choose not to comply now, that will allow state regulators to divert state transportation tax funds to compliant cities. That SB 375 is a license for greedy coastal cities in Democratic strongholds along the coast to capture the taxes of inland cities in Republican territory is never mentioned in the media. Environmentalism serves as a cover for politics by other means.

    Laws like SB 375 continue dependence on costly imported wholesale water, say at $500 per acre foot (a football field of water one foot high, which is enough to sustain two families per year) compared with cheap local groundwater at roughly $50 per acre foot. Imported water results in a ten-fold “drain” on local economies. That is why water is metaphorically colored gold in the Golden State of California.

    That this piece of legislation was previously passed by green former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, endorsed by then Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and signed by every state legislator representing Los Angeles, and without dissent from local water agencies and even air-quality resource boards, is indicative of how environmental policy is based on powerful political-cultural imagery beyond science and common sense. Incredibly, the implementation of SB 375 will even be granted certain breaks for transit-oriented development under the California Environmental Quality Act.

    California is shifting from valuing water as gold to a Foolʼs Gold Rush to reduce global warming and generate green power. Paraphrasing a Latin proverb, (political) hay is more acceptable to a donkey than gold.

    Glaeser asserts that there is a paradox is between fewer carbon emissions per average person in cities versus more carbon emissions in suburbs. But the real Green paradox is the trade off between carbon emissions and unsustainable imported water in coastal cities in California.

    Note: Wayne Lusvardi worked for The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California for 20-years, is a former water policy analyst for a California think tank, and is an expert on water rights and private water company valuations . The views expressed are his own.

    • Jim__L

      The views expressed are well-founded, it seems.

      I remember back during California’s rolling blackouts, someone brought up the fact that pumping water took up a significant portion of the state’s electricity.

      Do you have any idea where to start looking, if someone wanted to get more data on how much electricity (of CA’s total) is dedicated to pumping water (out of total water consumed) in each municipality of the state?

      • Wayne Lusvardi

        Mr Jim
        I wrote an article on the subject of how much energy is used for wholesale (not retail) water pumping in California.

        “What’s the Best Way to Save Water and Energy?”



        “A statistic that is currently advanced is that energy comprises 80 percent of a municipal water district’s operating costs, as Catherine Wolfram and David Zetland wrote in a March 3 op-ed in the Los Angeles Times.

        But government statistics show the actual cost is less than half that.

        According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, energy costs are about 40 percent of total operating costs for municipal drinking water. The EPA further estimates that only 3 to 4 percent of all electricity consumption in the United States is used to provide drinking and wastewater treatment services.

        Here are the operational costs of the State Water Project, which delivers raw, wholesale water to irrigation districts, urban water districts and water departments:

        • Bond service payments: 37 percent;

        • Net power purchases: 32 percent;

        • Operations and maintenance: 25 percent;

        • Reserves for replacements, insurance, etc.: 6 percent.

        That means financing the state water project with tax-exempt bonds costs more than the power does. And power is only 32 percent, not 80 percent, of the costs. Wholesale water rates are based on cost recovery.

        A recent study by the Metropolitan Water District reported:

        “The California Energy Commission has estimated that the state’s energy consumption related to the conveyance, treatment, storage, and distribution of its water supply is approximately 19 percent of the total statewide energy usage.”

        Of that 19 percent, 14 percentage points go to heat, cool, treat, process and pump water on one’s own property”.

      • Wayne Lusvardi

        Here is another report indicating energy for pumping water is 22% of costs.

        But this apparently is NOT considering NET pumping costs and how much is spent by homeowners to heat and treat water that is part of that 22%.

  • Proud Skeptic

    I rely on zoning regs in order to make sure that the house I spent a few hundred thousand dollars for continues to be worth what I paid for it.
    This article needs a great deal more detail. Are you suggesting that factories be allowed to be built in residential areas?

  • Jim__L

    Most of us aren’t interested in being placed in cells and denied basic automotive mobility for the sake of a Green agenda.

    Go back to pushing for telecommuting, TAI. Start pushing job growth in non-human-rat-hive areas.

    Density is anti-family. Density is inhuman. Deal with it.

  • gabrielsyme

    We should consider the demographic impact as well: smaller apartments and whole cultural gestalt of far-left urban environments probably reduce fertility; at the least, such areas have the lowest fertility rates in the U.S. More study is needed – we do not know to what extent cities such as S.F. & Portland reduce fertility as opposed to attracting a cohort who would anywhere be very low-fertility – but in an age of demographic decline, such questions should be at least considered.

  • LarryD

    I’m cynic enough I’d bet against the “green” argument moving anyone’s opinion one jot. I believe the current policies are having the effect the gentry want, keeping their social inferiors out of their playground. The justifications given are just cover.

    And I think they don’t want economic opportunity for anyone else, we’ve got ours, raise the drawbridge and seed the moat with alligators. Very insecure they are, not about being prosperous, per se, but about their status. And social status is a zero-sum game.

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