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Why Hawaii zoning laws should be abolished

Hawaii’s zoning laws prevent growth, are socially divisive, contribute to Hawaii’s high home prices and ought to be abolished, according to Nolan Gray, a former city planner in New York and research director for an housing advocacy group called California YIMBY.

Gray was the featured guest on the Nov. 21, 2022, episode of “Hawaii Together,” hosted by Joe Kent, executive vice president of the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii.

YIMBY, of course, stands for “Yes In My Back Yard,” whereas many zoning advocates take the opposite stance, “Not In My Back Yard.” 

“I think a lot of what’s going on with zoning is you have folks who got theirs, and they’re pulling up the ladder behind them,” Gray said.

Gray, who also is a doctoral student in urban planning at University of California, Los Angeles, and author of the recently published book Arbitrary Lines: How Zoning Broke the American City and How to Fix It,” said zoning isn’t necessarily the same as city planning.

“Things like planning out a street grid, planning that you have water and sewer installed, making sure that you’re scaling up public services alongside growth… those are all really important projects,” said Gray. “But zoning is a very different project. It’s something … where we try to … micromanage the minor details of what’s allowed on every single property — [and] that hasn’t worked. … I think maybe loosening some of those shackles, letting cities out of that straitjacket, actually could be really positive.”

Gray noted historically many cities adopted zoning as a way to promote racial or economic segregation. These days, he said, the common belief is that zoning is a way to shape urban growth. But the effects have still been negative. They have led to higher home prices and destroyed the character of neighborhoods. 

“You know, in so many of these cities where they’ve essentially blocked all growth, the character didn’t stay the same,” he said. “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, not allowing anything to be built doesn’t actually preserve community character in any meaningful sense. … 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 expressed optimism that zoning laws nationwide will be gradually abolished, if not severely reformed.

“I think the tide is really turning here, and what you have going on across the country now is this YIMBY movement, which says, ‘Yes in my backyard.’ It’s a positive message. It’s not a message of fear, but of excitement about what could be. You know, we could have cities where housing is abundant and affordable. We could have cities where it’s very easy to start a small business, … or even to run a business out of your home or to build a little accessory dwelling unit.

“At California YIMBY, we push to make it easier to build housing all across the state of California. We found that the politics, of course, as the California housing crisis has deepened, have really lined up, and that we’ve passed a lot of bills to make it easier to build housing. But there’s still a lot of work to be done.

To see the entire interview, click on the video below. A complete transcript is provided.”

11-21-22 Joe Kent hosts Nolan Gray on “Hawaii Together”

Joe Kent: Aloha, and welcome to “Hawaii Together” on the ThinkTech Hawaii broadcasting network. 

I’m Joe Kent, your host today standing in for Keliʻi Akina. I’m the executive vice president of the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii. 

My guest today is Nolan Gray. He’s a former city planner in New York, a Ph.D. student in urban planning at UCLA [University of California, Los Angeles] and the research director for California YIMBY, a group that’s working to change the conversation about housing and help end California’s housing shortage.

Nolan is also the author of a new book published by Island Press called Arbitrary Lines: How Zoning Broke the American City and How to Fix It,” which answers important questions about zoning, such as “What is zoning?” and “Why do cities use it?” and “Does it have any drawbacks?” 

And ultimately, Nolan says zoning should be abolished, and on our show today, he’ll tell us why. So, thanks so much for joining today, Nolan.

Nolan Gray: Thanks so much for having me, Joe. It’s a pleasure to be here.

Kent: And congratulations on the book. I read it and it’s, well, it’s fascinating for me — I’m interested in zoning. And if you ever want to know anything about zoning, you should definitely read this book. 

But it’s also funny in many places and has a lot of great stories. Like, for example, you start “Arbitrary Lines” talking about your first planning job in New York City and how you manned the city’s help desk and all the calls that would come in. 

What was that like, and what kind of perspective did that give you on how people view zoning?

Gray: Yeah, well, I think the main lesson that I took away from that is that a lot of folks actually don’t know what zoning is or the role that it plays in shaping their cities. 

As I talk about in the book, I would have people calling in for questions related to building code issues or noise complaints or subdivision issues or issues having to do with parks, and what I quickly found out was a lot of people don’t really understand the set of rules, they don’t understand how it interacts with their lives.

And in the context where we’re talking a lot about zoning and what it means for housing affordability, equity, economic opportunity, environmental planning, it’s really important that folks have a clear idea of what zoning is and where zoning comes from. 

That’s one of the things that I try to cover in the book.

Kent: And you also mention that a lot of people’s first experience with zoning is the video game “SimCity” [laughs], where you can map out, OK, this is a residential area; this is industrial zone. But it’s a little more complicated than that. 

Could you explain for our viewers: What is the concept of zoning, what does it do, and what is its purpose?

Gray: Right. So, zoning is trying to do two things. The first is it takes every single lot in the city and it says, one: What are the allowed uses on that lot?

So, of course, most folks know about residential, commercial, industrial. But within each of those uses, it makes quite a few distinctions. So, for example, in some residential districts in U.S. cities, the only thing you can build is a detached single-family home, while in other residential districts you can actually build apartments or townhouses or duplexes. 

Of course, there’s similar distinctions made within commercial and industrial. With commercial, you’ll have zoning ordinances listing out the minute details of every single commercial use on every single property. 

The other big thing that zoning is doing is it’s saying not only what you can build on any particular lot but how much of it you can build. So it’s placing very, very, very tight rules on the amount of floor area or the number of units you can build, placing rules on the number of parking spaces that you have to build.

So when you really understand zoning and you understand sort of its role in shaping U.S. urban growth, you really see the extent to which we put cities in a straitjacket. As we struggle with issues like housing affordability and economic opportunity and sustainability, zoning really is at the heart of a lot of those discussions.

Kent: But zoning wasn’t always here; it was started somewhere. Who invented zoning?

Gray: [laughs] Right. So, we, you know, we have this narrative about where zoning comes from, where “Oh, we had to keep factories away from residences” or “Oh, we had to coordinate growth with new investments.” 

The reality is a little bit messier. So, in the book, I cover two cases — two cities that adopted zoning in 1916, the very first zoning codes to be adopted. The first one I talk about is New York. I also talk about Berkeley, California.

In Berkeley, it was interesting because these traditional nuisances were not really terribly related to what they were trying to do, but they were really trying to segregate the city. So they were trying to institute rules that would say certain types of people get to live in this neighborhood and other types of people get to live in that neighborhood. 

Even with respect to industrial uses, for example, in Berkeley, they’ll say, “Well, yes, we need to adopt zoning to keep industrial uses out of certain neighborhoods.” And then you see, well, what types of industrial uses are they talking about? And they will say something like “Chinese laundries,” right? So there’s an ethnic or a racial element to what they’re trying to do.

But, so, essentially what Berkeley did, like so many other cities, was they adopted incredibly strict rules. In the case of Berkeley, they said, “We’re not going to allow any apartments or any duplexes or anything denser than a detached single-family home to be built in roughly 75 to 90% of residential areas in the city.” 

And of course, that’s upstream of the housing affordability crisis that we have in places like California and Hawaii today.

Kent: Yeah, you know, what I find really remarkable about “Arbitrary Lines” is you write that in some cases, in many cases, zoning was used to promote racial, ethnic or economic segregation. 

And you write, “We do our society no favors by pulling punches on this fact: Zoning is a tool of segregation.” And so, what do you mean by that?

Gray: Well, just exactly that. I mean, so modern zoning begins in the 19-teens. And what was happening in that time period was a few cities had tried to do explicitly racial zoning. 

So, for example, Louisville and other cities across the South tried to say, “We’re going to allow whites to live here and blacks will live there.” You know, very explicit, almost South Africa-style racial segregation imposed through local planning ordinances.

In a rare moment of clarity on these issues, in 1917, the Supreme Court said, “We’re not going to allow that; we’re not going to tolerate that; that’s not a legitimate function of government regulation.”

But 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. So, 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.”

And really what you get is, the ability to determine what can be built where is the ability to determine who gets to live where. And so many cities and suburbs used this regulatory mechanism to actually segregate cities; if not necessarily directly along racial lines, along class-based lines that had, ultimately, the same effect in many contexts.

Kent: I see. And this segregation isn’t just a humble byproduct or a loosely related concept. You’re arguing it’s baked into the whole concept from the very beginning, is that right?

Gray: I think that’s exactly right. I mean, so, you know, for example, before zoning, many jurisdictions did have regulations for things like true nuisances, right? 

So many jurisdictions would say, “OK, if you’re going to operate a slaughterhouse or an oil refinery or something that we just know is going to be offensive, we’re going to require that you’d be in certain parts of town or we’re going to require that you’d be so far away from residences and schools,” right?

I think those are the types of land-use rules that most folks can get behind. But what zoning adds to this mix is that it says, “Well, we’re going to go above and beyond that. We’re going to say exactly what type of housing can be built where, on every single parcel. We’re going to say for every single parcel in the city exactly what type of business you can operate, what types of permits those businesses have to get.”

And really, it’s like I say, you’re putting the cities in a straitjacket. You’re saying, “Well, we’re going to have a very, very, very regimented plan for what uses are allowed where and at what scale.” 

And that’s a pretty dramatic departure from the way basically all city planning worked in human history until quite recently.

Kent: Zooming into the zoning map, at least in Hawaii, if you look at it, most of the zoning is for single-family homes. I mean, most of the zoning where housing is allowed, and which is only 5% of the land in the state, by the way. 

But urban housing is allowed on 5% of the state. And if you zoom into that 5%, most of it, the vast majority, is single-family homes. 

Now, is that the case for the rest of America, too, and why is that?

Gray: Yeah, I would say that’s fairly typical. For example, in the typical U.S. city, 75 to 90% of residential areas might not allow any multi-family housing; they might not allow anything other than a detached single-family home. 

In many suburbs, it might be 100%, right? They might not allow anything other than a detached single-family home anywhere. And really, what that’s saying to property owners is saying, “We’re not going to allow you to use your property for anything but this particular use.” And that’s a really far cry from the way urban development and urban growth historically happened. 

You look at neighborhoods that were built up before zoning, and yeah, you would have a lot of detached single-family homes and there’s nothing wrong with that. But what you might have, over time, is one project gets turned into a duplex or a small apartment building gets built or maybe a corner grocery gets built with apartments over top. 

What you had was neighborhoods would get more diverse and dynamic over time, and you would have a mixture of housing typologies such that you could, you know, be a young professional, start a family and retire all in the same neighborhood. And that was really valuable for, I think, preserving social bonds and building real communities, really strong, resilient communities. 

What you have under the zoning paradigm is this very, very, very strict separation of all of these different housing typologies. 

And we say, “Oh, for example, if you’re going to live in an apartment, you have to live in this side of the city. If you want to live in a townhouse, you have to live in that side of the city. And then we’re going to reserve the vast majority of the city for one particular typology.”

And so, for example, in many U.S. contexts today, what we actually find is there’s a huge shortage of housing for maybe singles, young professionals, downsizing retirees, and we’re stuck with this housing stock that actually doesn’t make sense given current housing demand.

Kent: And that increases the price, too, of housing. And you mentioned there’s three different ways that it increases the price. One is by limiting housing overall. And, could you explain that again?

Gray: Yeah, sure. So, this is one of the most well-established findings within this literature is variations among cities in terms of how restrictive their zoning and land-use regulations are really does explain a lot of variation and housing affordability. 

So, regions that have really, really strict zoning regulations tend to have much higher housing costs. What does that mean? Well, the first is: Zoning often just makes it illegal to build many types of housing.

So, we’ve been talking about single-family zoning. That’s just essentially saying, “You can’t build all of those new types of housing that, really, it might be a starter home.” 

In 2022, a starter home is not a ranch-style home on a 7,500-square-foot lot. A starter home might be a townhouse or a home on a 2,500-square-foot lot or a duplex. In many cases, zoning makes it illegal to build those types of housing. 

The second mechanism is that zoning actually requires the housing that is built to be quite a bit more expensive than it might otherwise have been. It doesn’t allow developers to build more affordable housing typologies that there might be market demand for. 

So, for example, requiring huge minimum lot sizes that effectively mandate sprawl; or in cities requiring minimum parking requirements and contexts where many folks might only have one car or they might not have any cars in a more walkable or transit-oriented neighborhood.

You know, within a market, right, a developer can run experiments and say, “Hey, let’s try to — let’s try some homes with smaller lots. Let’s try some homes with less parking.” And if there’s a market for it, they can sell it. And it’s pretty clear to me that there’s a pretty large market for it that’s being unmet if you just look at housing prices. 

But what zoning does is it comes in and it second-guesses that and it adds on mandates and requirements that don’t really serve any health or safety function but do dramatically increase the cost of housing.

The third mechanism is all of the additional permitting and paperwork and entitlement delay that comes with zoning. 

So, for example, what you have in many cities is the zoning rules are so strict that very little can actually be built legally. And so developers have to actually come in and request relief from zoning — things like variances, things like re-zonings, things like special permits — to get anything built. That can add six months to two years to the process. 

In some states, that can involve having to do a full environmental review, even in context where we know that there’s no environmental impact, that the environmental impact is purely positive.

Having to attend public hearings, which, if you’ve ever seen a show like “Parks and Rec,” you know might not necessarily be the most productive thing in the world. 

And then, of course, you might not get your permits.

And all of these things collectively combined — zoning not allowing a lot of housing to be built, zoning forcing the housing that is built to be more expensive and then zoning just delaying the process altogether — this all adds up to increasing housing costs.

Kent: Yeah, in Hawaii, we see all of that. One of the more notable ones we see is the mandating of mansions, as you put it in your book. 

Gray: Yeah.

Kent: Because zoning doesn’t allow for so many different types of more affordable types of housing, only mansions can be built in many areas. And that’s what we’re seeing, too. 

And developers who try to build the less expensive housing and get their projects killed, you know, sometimes turn around and just say, “OK, well, I’m just going to build a mansion here because that’s the only thing you can build here.” [laughs]

Have you seen that elsewhere, too?

Gray: Oh, that’s so typical. 

That’s such a great thing to raise because in many cases, what’s allowed “as of right” is — so, for example, let’s say you have a, you know, a 1-acre property, right? You know, a developer might say, “Hey, look, I can actually build, you know, maybe 20 townhouses on this thing, and there’s a clear market for that. There’s a lot of young families that need something like a townhouse to get on that home ownership ladder.”

But then you might have zoning rules that say, “Well, we’re only going to allow detached single-family homes on 10,000-square-foot lots,” so you can only build four homes, and they’re going to inherently be more expensive homes. And so, not only do you get fewer homes, but you get more expensive homes, right?

And again, there’s nothing necessarily wrong with that. If that’s what, you know, if that’s what there’s market demand for, that’s totally OK. 

But what zoning does is it says, “Well, 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.”

And of course, the housing affordability crisis that, you know, has been an issue in places like Hawaii and California for a long time, but is spreading across the country, it only deepens because the regulations in place actually don’t allow the housing to be built.

Kent: One thing I thought was remarkable about your book is you mentioned about how so many people are leaving the more expensive places in the U.S. and moving to those more inexpensive places, but you note that they’re only temporarily inexpensive because this phenomenon of zoning keeps growing kind of like a blob monster; it’s almost like you can’t stop in it. 

And if that’s the case, then those places may become expensive.

Gray: Absolutely. I mean, so, historically, Americans would move from lower-productivity, lower-wage places to wealthier, more productive places, right? 

I mean, as of course most folks know the history of great migration out of the South by African Americans moving from the South to the industrial north. 

Americans, historically, would move to places like California and dramatically improve their quality of life, their standard of living. Places like Hawaii, as well — places where they could be, you know, at their most productive and really improve their quality of life.

Of course, now Americans have to do the opposite. Kids growing up in California essentially have to leave the state — or in Hawaii, for that matter — essentially have to leave the state to get access to affordable housing. 

Even if, you know, there’s plenty of jobs and there’s a very high quality of life and decent public services, what Americans are doing is moving en masse to the less productive places where they can actually afford housing.

And that’s really, you know, that’s a huge component of, I think, a lot of the economic dislocation that folks are feeling right now. The folks cannot stay. And if they’re in — if they grow up in a high-opportunity area, in many cases, they can’t afford to stay there. And if they want to move there, of course, it can be prohibitively expensive. 

So this has had huge economic implications for the country as a whole. 

You know, I hear a lot of folks say, “Well, I own my house, you know, I have a cheap apartment here. What do I care about this?” 

Well, you know, it’s making us all collectively poorer. If, for example, a young software engineer can’t afford to move to San Francisco or someone who wants to work in, for example, medical research, can’t afford to move to Boston where they can be with working with their peers and be at their most productive, that makes us all collectively poorer and wears off.

Kent: And you talk about reform, but you also talk about abolition. You write, “We can’t tinker our way out of this one; the longer-term objective must be zoning abolition.” 

So, why do you have that perspective?

Gray: Well, you know, so I’ll say, I think in the near term, reform makes a lot of sense. I mean, there’s a lot of low-hanging fruit in terms of liberalizing these zoning regulations that gets you a lot off the way there, right? Getting rid of really restrictive rules like single-family zoning; easing up on rules that increase costs like parking mandates or large minimum-lot sizes; streamlining the process. 

But in the longer term, you know, I question the project of saying, “Well, we’re going to have planners sit down and assign the appropriate use and density for every single parcel in the city.” 

I think planners have a hugely important role to play in, for example, planning out infrastructure to make sure that there’s sufficient infrastructure to meet a growth that’s likely happening. Planners have a really important role to play in dealing with things like negative externalities, right? Traditional nuisances: noise, smells, maybe even traffic generation. 

But this entire project of saying, “We’re going to sit down and come up with a master plan where we determine the appropriate use and scale for every single parcel over a 50-year timeframe” — well, we know it doesn’t work; it hasn’t worked; and we could have been able to see that from the outset. You know, this project…

Kent: And you’re saying that zoning is different than city planning?

Gray: Absolutely, yeah. 

Well, I think this is something that I try to flag in the book, which is that zoning has kind of consumed city planning, right? So, so much of it becomes this giant game of trying to assign uses and densities to every single lot. And ironically, we end up losing sight of some of these more important planning objectives. 

You know, like I say, the things like planning out a street grid, planning that you have water and sewer installed, making sure that you’re scaling up public services alongside growth, dealing with those traditional externalities — those are all really important projects, and they’re not really actually the type of thing that a typical planner does in his or her day-to-day.

So much of what planning has become is processing applications for folks who are desperately trying to get exemptions to zoning. It’s not planning in any meaningful sense; it’s purely reactive. 

And so, what I would advise is, you know, let’s get rid of a lot of these rules where planners just aren’t really in a good position to do this type of work and beef up some of these rules where planners can actually add value.

So, for example, this project of zoning where we try to sit down and micromanage the minor details of what’s allowed on every single property — that hasn’t worked. And, you know, I think maybe loosening some of those shackles, letting cities out of that straitjacket, actually could be really positive.

Kent: And so people who are concerned about the idea of abolishing zoning, as you put it, what you’re saying is that there’s another way to regulate noise, to regulate business and so on. 

Rather than zoning, you can look at planning. Can you explain, again, what is the difference between those two concepts?

Gray: Yeah, so, it’s a great question. I mean, planning is what humans have been doing basically since we started settling down, right? 

So, you know, in the Western tradition, we look back at the ancient Greeks who, when they’re planning out a new city, they plan out a street grid, public plaza, water, sewer, right? Humans have been doing that, and across civilizations, basically since the dawn of time, right?

But zoning is a very different project. It’s something that we’ve been doing for the last 100 years, where we say we’re going to assign the permitted uses and densities on every single parcel. There’s going to be this giant zoning ordinance and a zoning map, and we’re going to micromanage exactly what is allowed on every single lot. 

That’s a very different project, and I think that if you actually appreciate, you know, what planners can and can’t know, where rules are actually appropriate, I think it looks very different from the system that we have today.

You know, in the book, I talk a little bit about Houston, which is really fascinating. It’s the only major American city that doesn’t have zoning. Houston made a lot of other, you know, planning mistakes that I highlight in the book, but I argue this is one really big mistake that they didn’t make. 

And what you end up getting in Houston, actually, for example, is a lot of the things that you actually wanted out of zoning, but without a lot of the costs. So, for example, in a city like Houston, truly incompatible use is still, for the most part, separate, right? 

You know, the zoning mythology is, “Oh, we needed to adopt zoning to keep factories out of residential neighborhoods.” Well, you know, the factory doesn’t want to be on your cul-de-sac any more than you want the factory to be on your cul-de-sac, right? 

Different uses have different locational needs. They need to be near, you know, trunk line railroads, large freeway interchanges. 

Similar with commercial, right? Commercial has different locational needs from residential. 

And then, of course, everyone has a vested stake in not having ongoing conflicts with their neighbors.

So the market, to a certain extent, solves a lot of these problems. Where markets don’t solve these problems, it’s appropriate to have rules that are targeted around specific impacts or the specific behaviors that actually do affect the quality of life of people. 

But that’s a very different project from this project, from saying, “Well, we’re going to sit down and say exactly, maybe, where bakeries are allowed,” or “We’re going to sit down and say where duplexes can and can’t be built.”

And …

Kent: And to your point, zoning actually gets in the way of city planning, especially over time. You mentioned that the zoning, over time, in America, has frozen cities in amber, and that’s certainly happened in Hawaii. 

But if you want to plan — let’s say, the economy changes or the market changes and people want to live differently, it’s hard to do that under an old zoning regime.

Gray: Yeah. Oh, absolutely. 

I mean, this is the situation that we’re in today, is so many U.S. cities are stuck subject to a set of zoning regulations that were written maybe 50-60 years ago in very, very different context. And what you find, of course, is that, when, you know, locked in a straitjacket that tight, it gets very painful. 

You know, a healthy city is always growing and adapting. We talk a lot about preserving community character — I would contend that you preserve community character by letting a city grow and adapt and change over time.

You know, 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, not allowing anything to be built doesn’t actually preserve community character in any meaningful sense. But 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.

Kent: And it’s interesting in your book that you talk about the losers and winners of zoning. The winners are, of course, the mainstream, the economically advantaged and everything. But who are the losers in zoning — the people who lose out?

Gray: That’s a great question. I mean, I think a lot of what’s going on with zoning is you have folks who got theirs, and they’re pulling up the ladder behind them. 

Folks who got their house or maybe were able to start their business and then pulling up the ladder and saying, “Well, we’re not going to allow any more housing to be built; we’re not going to allow any more businesses to start.” I think there is a generational component to this. 

Of course, you know, within the YIMBY movement, we have folks of all ages and backgrounds. But I do think it’s folks saying, you know, not fully appreciating that to remain a place where, you know, for example, folks with children can afford to stay and grow up and start a family, you do have to have a little bit of growth. And that’s where I find that folks start to change their mind, right? 

That’s when folks really start, so — I always tell, I always say, you know, imagine you’re a California or a Hawaiian homeowner, right, and you bought your home in the 1970s and now it’s worth, you know, 10-X, 20-X, 30-X what it was. In one sense, you’ve won, right? You won the lottery. You know, you’ve gained all this kind of wealth from your home value increasing. 

But in another sense, your community has completely collapsed, right? Your children probably can’t afford to buy a home within, you know — in the case of Hawaii, in the state as a whole. They’re not able to gain that type of home ownership and wealth-building opportunity that you once had. You know, your friends and colleagues are maybe cashing out and retiring to other places. 

Yeah, in one sense, your community’s not really changing because you have really strict zoning, but the homes are gradually being flipped to be larger and more expensive. That person, in a certain sense, yeah, they won, their home is worth a lot of money, but in a deeper, more meaningful sense, the community’s been destroyed. 

And I find that a lot of folks are feeling that, and they’re not really appreciating, you know, they’re — I think what they’re doing is they’re starting to appreciate that, yeah, actually my community needs to change a little bit over time; we need a little bit more growth; we need a little bit more development. 

But that’s really going to keep the community the way I really want it to be — a type of place where the folks who grew up here can still move here. The type of place where maybe, you know, folks like me, if I moved into a community in the ’70s or ’80s can still move there. 

And so, we’re seeing that happen in California, and I think it’s going to hopefully start happening across the country as these housing markets get, you know, even more restrictive.

Kent: Well, “Arbitrary Lines” is just an amazing read, fascinating to view it through that lens. And one refrain that we often hear when folks try to oppose housing projects is “Not in my backyard,” or NIMBY. But you focus on a different acronym — YIMBY, “Yes in My Backyard” — and You’re part of California YIMBY which is a group out there. 

Could you explain the organization’s mission, and have you had any successes out there?

Gray: Yeah, so, you know, I think, historically, a lot of these battles were driven by NIMBYs — folks who just said no to everything, they didn’t want any change. 

But I think the tide is really turning here, and what you have going on across the country now is this YIMBY movement, which says, “Yes in my backyard.” It’s a positive message. It’s not a message of fear, but of excitement about what could be. 

You know, we could have cities where housing is abundant and affordable. We could have cities where it’s very easy to start a small business and, you know, or even to run a business out of your home or to build a little accessory dwelling unit.

At California YIMBY, we push to make it easier to build housing all across the state of California. We found that the politics, of course, as the California housing crisis has deepened, have really lined up and that we’ve passed a lot of bills to make it easier to build housing, but there’s still a lot of work to be done.

Kent: And are there other areas across the U.S. that are starting to see some progress?

Gray: Yeah, absolutely. So, in the book, I talk about reforms that are happening at the state level all across the country. You know, in a diverse, partisan ideological range of context. 

You’ll have places like Utah and Montana that are undertaking zoning reform alongside, for example, Connecticut and Massachusetts. You know, I think there’s broad appeal to this issue. 

And what we’re in right now is we’re really in a housing affordability crisis, and increasingly, 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.” 

And so, we’re seeing reforms happenomh all across the country.

Kent: Well, thank you, Nolan Gray. “Arbitrary Lines” — I highly recommend our audience read this book. And thanks so much for talking with us today.

Gray: Thank you, Joe. It was a real pleasure.

Kent: Thank you. And of course, thank you to our audience for joining us today on “Hawaii Together.” 

I’m Joe Kent, standing in for Keliʻi Akina. Until next time, aloha.

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PETITION: Exempt medical services from Hawaii's excise tax!

To the Hawaii Legislature:

Hawaii families face skyrocketing healthcare costs and a shortage of doctors. Exempting medical services from Hawaii’s general excise tax would result in millions of dollars in savings for residents and help bring doctors back.

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