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Is overly zealous zoning the cause of Hawaii’s acute housing shortage?

One of the most information-packed episodes of “Hawaii Together” I’ve ever seen aired this past Tuesday on the ThinkTech Hawaii, and I wasn’t even a part of it.

It was hosted by my Grassroot Institute of Hawaii colleague Joe Kent, who was sitting in for me because I was representing the Institute at a conference in New York City.

Joe’s guest was Nolan Gray, research director of the housing advocacy group California YIMBY (Yes In My Back Yard), who made the case for abolishing zoning.

Yes, abolishing zoning.

When I had the chance later to watch the interview, I thought Gray’s position was highly provocative, but also highly persuasive, grounded firmly in data, history and sound economic reasoning.

Aside from his affiliation with California YIMBY, which has had success in liberalizing zoning laws in California, Gray’s credentials include being a former city planner in New York City, a doctoral student in urban planning at the University of California, Los Angeles, and author of the new book “Arbitrary Lines: How Zoning Broke the American City and How to Fix It.”

Gray said the problem with zoning is that it doesn’t just designate areas as “residential,” “industrial” or “commercial”; it also micromanages every single lot in a city or county, determining precisely what is allowed and what is forbidden — including how big the lots must be, how high buildings can be, what a structure’s floor area must be, what kind of homes can be built, what kinds of commercial or industrial uses are allowed, how many parking spaces are required, and on and on.

If you doubt what Gray is saying, take a look at the 60-plus pages of Chapter 21 of the Revised Ordinances of Honolulu. Or look at the Honolulu City Council’s Bill 10, which takes up more than 230 pages in an effort to “update” Chapter 21. The amount of regulatory minutiae in both is astounding.

Gray also wants people to be aware of zoning’s nefarious origins. Most people think its purpose, as stated in Honolulu’s Chapter 21, is to “encourage orderly development.” But actually, zoning originated as a way to implement racial and economic segregation.

In Berkeley, one of the first cities to adopt it, zoning was used to keep Chinese laundries out of certain neighborhoods. Even after the Supreme Court put a stop to the explicit use of zoning for racial segregation, the practice continued in a more subtle way.

“What you get in the aftermath of that is that a lot of cities scramble to pursue that type of segregation but through other regulatory means,” said Gray. “What you get instead are these rules that say, ‘Well, we’re not segregating the city based on race, but you have to earn at least enough money to afford a detached single-family home to live in this neighborhood. In this neighborhood, you need to have a 10,000-square-foot lot. In that neighborhood, you need to have a half-acre lot. In this neighborhood over here, we’ll allow apartments to be built.’”

But even when the motives behind it are pure, zoning still is socially disruptive, pushing up prices by limiting what can be built and adding design requirements “that don’t really serve any health or safety function, but do dramatically increase the cost of housing.”

There also are all the permits, environmental reviews and other requirements that can add years to the time it takes to build new housing. In some places, zoning is so strict that nearly every project requires some type of special permission or variance.

Under the circumstances, it’s no surprise that many homebuilders find themselves building mansions on large lots rather than smaller, multiunit homes — as has been happening in Hawaii.

Gray said the message of zoning is that, “‘We’re not legally going to allow you to build that cheaper, more affordable housing typology. We’re not going to allow you to build those extra units. We’re going to force you to build the more expensive product — if we allow you to build anything at all.”

Gray described zoning as a “straitjacket” that restricts the way cities can grow and adapt. Worse, rather than preserving the character of a community, zoning undermines it.

“In so many of these cities where they’ve essentially blocked all growth, the character didn’t stay the same. In fact, the character gets dramatically different. It becomes much more expensive, much more exclusionary, the type of place where young families have to move away, the type of place where retirees have to move away when they want to downsize.

“To my mind,” Gray said, “… the places where you preserve character are the places where you allow the city to continue to grow and adapt and reflect changing needs over time.”

Gray said zoning reform should focus on getting rid of the most restrictive rules, like lot-size minimums, single-family zoning and parking mandates. In the long term, however, he said we should reconsider zoning entirely.

As an example, he pointed to Houston, the only American city without zoning. He said Houston’s experience demonstrates that zoning laws aren’t necessary to keep industrial and residential uses separate. The problem has been addressed efficiently and without government interference.

Gray emphasized he is not against city planning, just the excessive micromanaging of land use reflected in modern zoning.

Getting rid of zoning, he said, would free up planners to focus on more important issues, such as infrastructure, traffic and the environment.

“Increasingly,” Gray said, “folks from all sides of the ideological and partisan spectrum are realizing, ‘Hey, the status quo doesn’t work. The rules that we have in place have really perpetuated a housing crisis and limited opportunity and limited mobility for folks.’”

I was very impressed by Gray’s arguments and observations. I agree with him that more people need to understand how zoning laws are the main obstacle to affordable housing.

He said there is a growing movement to end zoning’s stranglehold on our cities, and I hope he is right. At the very least, we need to radically reform Hawaii’s zoning laws and bring city planning and development into a new era.
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This commentary was Keli’i Akina’s weekly “President’s Corner” column for Nov. 26, 2022. If you would like to have his columns emailed to you on a regular basis, please call 808-864-1776 or email info@grassrootinstitute.org.

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