Gray makes waves with challenge to zoning laws

Sometimes, problems that are exclusive to the islands call for uniquely Hawaii solutions. That’s not necessarily the case for the affordable housing crisis, though, says zoning expert Nolan Gray. 

Gray, author of the recently published book “Arbitrary Lines: How Zoning Broke the American City and How to Fix It,” believes that zoning regulations can feasibly be abolished to build more affordable, prosperous and sustainable communities. 

The Grassroot Institute of Hawaii invited Gray to present his views on Oahu and Maui this week. On Wednesday, he spoke to class at Hawaii Pacific University and an audience of law students, former and current government planning officials and other interested community members at the University of Hawaii at Manoa’s William S. Richardson School of Law. 

At the UH event, Gray, a former New York City city planner who currently is research director for a housing advocacy group called California YIMBY and a doctoral student in urban planning at University of California, Los Angeles, called zoning a “social project” and talked in general about what zoning is, how it began in the early 1900s as a tool for racial segregation, and how it affects communities today. 

He also highlighted several solutions and reforms for zoning that, in many cities across the country, are already underway. 

Gray said “the real damage” caused by highly restrictive zoning regulations is that now “it’s just illegal to build starter homes,” such as townhouses, small-lot single-family homes or two-bedroom condos, which means “young families, young households can’t get on the path to building wealth through homeownership, they can’t actually afford to stay in their community if they want to own their own home, and they have to move away. I’m sure folks in Hawaii actually feel this pretty acutely.”

During a Q&A session after the presentation, Gray stressed his belief that zoning differs from true city planning, which he said is necessary to ensure adequate public services and resources. 

“I don’t think [zoning] is a system that was well-meaning originally and then was hijacked — I don’t think it’s a system that worked particularly well and then went wrong,” he said. “I think it’s a system that was explicitly designed to entrench housing scarcity and segregation and sprawl, and the sooner we come to terms with that, the sooner we can hopefully start to have a productive conversation about what would it look like to have a land use planning system that deals with the actual issues that we want to regulate.”

Audience member Gary Okuda, a local attorney currently on the state Land Use Commission, thanked Gray for sharing his thoughts. 

“In Hawaii, we need new ideas, we need open discussion,” Okuda said. “We have too many of our young people feeling that they have to live elsewhere, and we’ll get nowhere in this community unless people are willing to listen to new ideas, listen to common sense.”

To see Gray’s presentation at the University of Hawai‘i law school, click on the video below. A complete transcript will be provided soon.

2-15-23 Nolan Gray speaks at UH College of Law

Robert Thomas: Welcome, welcome. We’re going to get underway and let our stranglers catch up. 

One word: We do want to let you know that it is being recorded. It’s not being broadcast, right? It’s being recorded for later broadcast, so be aware of that. By remaining here, you are consenting to be recorded if you speak. 

And I don’t want to take any time away from our time with our wonderful guest speaker, but on behalf of us in the land-use class here in the spring semester at the [University of Hawai‘i at Manoa William S. Richardson School of Law], my name is Robert Thomas.

I am a professor at the William & Mary Law School in Virginia, but also visiting here for the semester, and have a great honor of succeeding — at least for this semester — David Callies in teaching the land-use class now that David has gone fully emeritus. But on behalf of our class — Nolan, aloha and welcome.

Nolan Gray: Thank you.

Thomas: Thank you for coming.


Thomas: All right. And with that, I’m going to turn it over. Through the great foresight … 

Joe Kent: Actually, I’ll give you an introduction here in a minute. Just a second.

Thomas: … and generosity of the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii, we are very lucky that they’ve made this happen. So with that, I’m going to turn it over to my friend, Joe Kent. Joe, all yours.


Kent: OK, thank you. Aloha, everyone, and thanks so much for being here. I’m Joe Kent with the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii. 

We’re a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that seeks to educate about individual liberty, economic freedom and accountable government in Hawaii, and today we’re so happy to have Nolan Gray here. 

He’s a former city planner from New York City who now leads a “Yes In My Back Yard” movement in California, and he’s the author of “Arbitrary Lines: How Zoning Broke the American City and How to Fix It.”

This is an awesome book. It’s a great explanation of the zoning issues and how they affect our lives and the people they affect. And at the end of the day, these laws affect a lot of people, so we’re going to learn about that. 

And it may sound like doom and gloom, but there’s hope. There’s Yes in My Backyard movements, and we can ask Nolan more about that too. So, won’t you welcome Nolan Gray. Here you go.


Gray: Thank you, Joe, and thanks to Robert, and thank you all everybody for coming out. Of course, Joe said, “Hey, you guys have solved housing affordability in California; can you come out to Hawaii and explain how you did it?” 

No, but in all seriousness, it’s a pleasure to be here, and I think actually speaking in a context that actually deals with very similar issues. As Joe said, I’m Nolan Gray. I’m the research director for California YIMBY, which is a statewide organization working to make it easier to build housing in California. 

California — like Hawaii — has a crippling housing shortage, which of course leaves many folks with no path to home ownership; it puts renters in a situation where they’re facing increasingly high rent burdens; and of course it leaves many people living on the street or sleeping on couches. So, we’re looking to push solutions to that, and I think there’s a lot here that will be of value both to California and Hawaii. 

You know, these two states are a little bit unique in that I’ve been doing advocacy in this space for a while now, and before the pandemic, most states you would go and raise housing affordability as an issue, and I think there was a somewhat dismissive attitude, right? There was this idea of, “Oh, well, that’s a California issue or that’s a New York City issue. We don’t have those problems here.”

Of course, over the past two or three years with the COVID-19 pandemic, that all changed. You had, the housing crisis really went national, and now I’m talking to state and local elected officials in every single state in the country asking, “What can we do?” 

And of course some of that was short-term shocks, right? Some of that was things like interest rates or inflation or building material and labor shortages. But I think part of what it was, was it was revealing long-term policy problems. It was really, you know, as Warren Buffet puts it: The tide was going out, and we were seeing who wasn’t wearing any pants. 

We had this crisis, and we actually found that many jurisdictions had rules in place that actually made it hard to build housing at scale, at a right time frame and in the right places. 

So in today’s talk, I’m going to be talking broadly about what zoning is and where it comes from — I don’t know much, how far along you all are in the land-use law class, so I’m looking forward to the Q&A on that. Talk a lot about what went wrong with zoning and how it affects, you know, our communities and our individual lives. And then I’ll spend the bulk of the talk discussing where we go from here and positive solutions and positive reforms, in many cases, that are already underway.

So, I want to start — get a show of hands here — who in the room would consider themselves a zoning expert? Raise your hand. Any zoning experts? OK, great. Who in the room, you know, was aware of zoning before they were cowed by their professor into coming to this talk, or? OK, so folks aware of zoning, right? 

And then who are the normal, well-adjusted people in the room who don’t know anything about zoning? Great. Oh, come on. You were at my last talk. Great. Well, for that last group, my goal — if you’re in that second group, my goal is to bring you up to expert; and if you’re in that third group, my goal is to corrupt you. 

What is zoning? So, zoning is a state delegated power that allows local governments to adopt two documents: The first is a zoning ordinance, which defines a bunch of zoning districts and says the permitted use and density rules for every single one of those districts; and then a map that assigns every single parcel in the city to one of those districts. 

Now, this — right? — this might seem really wonky, right? The document on the left is probably not exactly a beach read. But if you understand these rules and if you understand what they are and how they’re mapped, they can actually help you to understand why your community looks the way it does and why it might have some of the problems that it does.

So, zoning is trying to do two things in particular. The first is segregate land uses. So, of course, most people know in general zoning puts every single parcel into one of three use categories: residential, commercial or industrial. But it actually gets quite a bit more complex than that. 

It’s not just broadly industrial or broadly residential. But in many cases different zoning districts will say, “Well, in this residential district, the only thing you can build is a detached single-family home; or in this commercial district, the only thing that you can build is strip mall retail.” So it’s highly prescriptive rules. 

I think a lot of people when they first approach this, too, they maybe think this is mainly a health and safety consideration or a health and safety issue. Of course, that might be part of some of it when you’re dealing with segregating heavy industry from residential areas. But for the most part, these rules go much further than that and really are a kind of social project.

So, for example, here’s an image on the right, which is the typical rules in your standard R-1 zoning district. It’s only allowing a detached single-family home on a 7,500-square-foot lot. And you can see the social project here in this image, right? There’s mom, dad, two kids, car in the backyard, one of the permitted land uses is golf courses, right? 

There’s a very particular vision of what the correct city and the correct type of urban resident looks like, and it’s impossible to understand zoning without understanding that broader social project. 

The second thing that zoning regulates is, broadly speaking, density — or the thicket of rules that will shape how much building you can have on any particular parcel, and then what that building is going to look like. 

So most people here know, probably, about height limits, right? You, your zoning is saying, “These are the height limits for different parts of the city.” Most people here might be aware of things like setbacks — the building can’t be more than so many feet from the property line. 

But there are a whole bunch of other rules that restrict density. So you have, for example, floor area ratios, which say based on the size of the lot, you can only build so much floor area; or based on the size of the lot, you can only build so many units. These are all regulations that, broadly speaking, highly restrict density in most U.S. cities and most U.S. neighborhoods.

This is a little bit of a wonky point, but I actually think it’s really important to make. Something that I stress is that zoning is very different from a lot of the other forms of building and land-use regulation that we have. So, for example, you know, when I was first sort of discussing the idea of the book with people, people would say, “Well, you can’t get rid of too much zoning because we need to have health and safety inspections on buildings.” Of course, that’s a separate collection of ordinances; that’ll be a building code. 

Or people will say, “Well, I still value historic preservation, historic resources.” That’s generally a separate ordinance. Same with subdivision regulations. These are generally separate ordinances. They might be in the same code section as zoning, but they’re generally— they work very different, and they’re doing different things. They have their benefits and their costs in their own way, but I want to stress that in this talk, I’m really focusing on zoning, which is that use segregation and density restriction regulation.

So, why care? Why care about this? This is an image from where I’m coming from — West LA is a very, very peculiar form of land use. You have high rises along Wilshire Boulevard right next to detached single-family homes. Locally, we call this “condo canyon.” When you understand what your zoning rules are, you can often start to make sense of land-use patterns like this. 

So of course, the main reason that people really are getting interested in zoning these days is the housing affordability issue, and there’s a really robust literature on this. 

There’s a lot of different ways to rank restrictiveness of land-use regulations; but broadly speaking, we know that the stricter the land-use regulations are in a metropolitan area, the more likely you are to have housing affordability issues, the more likely the homes are going to cost more above and beyond what you would expect based on demographics or incomes.

As I argue in the book and I’m going to argue here today, there’s three mechanisms there. The first is that zoning often restricts new supplies, so it just makes it impossible to build a lot of housing. 

The second is that it mandates those units that are built to be more expensive than they might otherwise have been — than consumers might otherwise have preferred or developers might otherwise have been able to build.

The third is that zoning often makes the entitlement process — or the process of getting your permits — political, discretionary, highly unpredictable. Of course, this is weaponized by NIMBY groups — “Not In My Back Yard.” 

So, let’s talk about blocking just new supply — returning to Los Angeles for a moment. This is a map of the municipal boundaries of Los Angeles. Yes, Los Angeles has very weird municipal boundaries. That’s a very weird history in its own right — there’s a nice little long line to make sure that we got the port. 

In the middle of that, that white area in the middle is Beverly Hills. But what’s colored here in this image — if it’s pink or blue — these are areas where the city has said, “These areas are appropriate for residential. You can build certain residential developments there.” But the pink are the areas where the city has said, “The only thing you can build here is a detached single-family home.” 

So, right, most of you probably know — if you’ve been there or not, if you’ve been there you’ve probably seen the effects firsthand — Los Angeles has an extreme housing shortage, and this really is an inevitable result of these policies that essentially say you cannot build something like a duplex, which is what you see here. 

Before zoning, when home prices were going up in residential neighborhoods in Los Angeles, density would incrementally increase; additional smaller units, more affordable units, would be added; and areas would remain broadly affordable. 

Of course today in 80% of areas where the city says they’re appropriate for residential, the only thing you can legally build is a detached single-family home. And given market conditions, that’s going to be a mansion; that’s going to be very expensive. I want to be, put a fine point on this issue. The city is saying, “If you can’t afford a detached single-family home, you just don’t get to live in all of these pink areas.” 

The second mechanism here — a connection between zoning and housing affordability — is that these rules often make the units that are built much more expensive. The connection here will vary a little bit based on suburban or urban context. In suburban context, the rules that really drive up costs, so far as I can tell, is minimum lot size rules. So, these are rules that say, “You cannot have a detached single-family home unless you have so much land.” 

Here on the left side is a survey of these minimum lot sizes from metropolitan Houston — not a context that we would normally think of as having really strict land-use regulations. But even here, you have jurisdictions that say, “Unless you can plot a 12,000-or so-square-foot lot, you don’t get to have a detached single-family home here.”

In context where land is really expensive, that’s a pretty significant price floor — and that’s probably pretty low. If you go to places like New England, it’s pretty common to see minimum lot sizes that are a half acre, an acre, two acres. Again, that’s essentially saying, “If you can’t afford this level of land consumption, you don’t get to live here.” And, of course, as I’ll talk about more in a minute, that drives sprawl.

In urban context, a similar version of this effect it comes from minimum parking requirements. So these say, “If you want to build a, you know, retail storefront or if you want to build an apartment building or if you want to build an office building, you have to have so many parking spaces above and beyond what you think your prospective tenant or buyer might want.”

So, here’s a, you know — for the housing connection, there’s a great illustration from my friends at the Parking Reform Network showing that if you have a roughly 700-square-foot two-bedroom apartment and the minimum parking requirement says that you can only build that apartment if you have two parking spaces, then you’re effectively requiring the family that lives in that unit to consume twice as much space.

Now, of course, some people want parking spaces. That’s totally appropriate. I have a car, I would be looking for a unit with a parking space. But this apartment building might be right next to a university or it might be right next to a high-frequency transit line, and those prospective tenants might say, “Well, I would actually prefer to have lower rents and not have a parking space.” 

But what zoning does is it doesn’t actually allow them that choice. It doesn’t give them that option. It says that if you’re going to build that apartment building, we want to see either a really large surface parking lot or, in urban areas where land is expensive, a parking garage. That can add $20,000, $30,000, $40,000 to the cost of a new unit depending on local market conditions. 

The third connection here is that because the zoning restrictions in so many U.S. cities are so strict and so out of sync with reality, almost every project that gets approved has to go through some type of discretionary approval process. 

Sometimes this is requiring/requesting a change from the zoning — requesting a rezoning or requesting a text amendment. Sometimes this is a special permit, it’s a site plan review. There are a thousand different ways that you can get thrown into what’s called [the] discretionary permitting universe, where you’re not entitled to your permits. 

You might have to undergo multiple public hearings. Your permits are at the discretion of an elected official. As again, coming from LA, we’ve had two Council members be indicted for zoning-related corruption recently, so it gets you corruption issues. 

But this process stretches it out and often does actually kill projects. It politicizes new development. And what it does is it creates a process that can easily be captured by NYMBYs — the “Not In My Back Yard” interests  — particularly [from] higher opportunity wealthier neighborhoods who can come to all these meetings and sway the process maybe in a way that doesn’t reflect the broader needs of the community,but reflect maybe their parochial self-focused interests.

We talk a lot about individual zoning fights, but scale that up over the course of a city, over the course of decades, and what you get is kind of an inevitable housing affordability crisis. 

One more quick point that I’ll make on the housing affordability issue is: I think where the real damage has been done here is that in so many cities, it’s just illegal to build starter homes, right? I talk to so many builders who say, “Yeah, I actually want to build in the $200,000 to $300,000 range. When I build those units, they fly off the market. But the rules are so strict that I can’t build a townhouse or a small single-family home or a two-bedroom condo.” 

Those are the starter homes  — that’s what a starter home looks like in 2023. But in many cases, our rules actually don’t allow that to be built or make it legally very, very, very difficult to build those units. So, young families and young households can’t get on the path to building wealth through home ownership. They can’t actually afford to stay in their community if they want to own a home, and they have to move away. 

Of course, most of the interest right now is on housing affordability issues. But as I argue in the book, zoning really touches on a whole host of other issues that I think folks are thinking about  — economic opportunity and prosperity; undoing the harm of decades of policy intentionally segregating or cities, both on racial and socioeconomic lines; and then, of course, dealing with issues of environmental conservation and sustainability.

So economic opportunity, right? I’m sure folks in Hawaii actually feel this pretty acutely. Many millions of Americans these days, or hundreds of thousands of Americans, are forced to move just to find an affordable home. And what the result of this has been is that, for the first time in American history, Americans move from high-opportunity, highly productive places to less affluent, less productive places, right? 

If you look at American mobility patterns through history, Americans would move from places without a lot of jobs or with poor public services or poor schools to places that had a lot of good jobs, high paying opportunities, great schools. Now, Americans do the opposite, right? You can look over the course of the 20th Century, and there are many examples of this: the great migration of African Americans out of the south, the industrializing Midwest or Northeast, the movement of the Okies out of Oklahoma to places like California.

Americans, historically, could move to prosperity and opportunity and improve their lives for themselves and their children. But now, in many cases, just to afford a decent home, Americans have to move to places where those opportunities are significantly curtailed. And there’s pretty good evidence that this makes us all poorer, right? To the extent that folks can’t go to the places where they can maximize their earnings or where they can get the best education, what you end up with is generally a society that’s much poorer.

You know, when I was writing this book, I wrote the book in 2020, and I was living in downtown D.C, and the Black Lives Matter protests were happening in downtown — it was actually in the cordon zone. It’s a little bit embarrassing, but I found out because I was — my girlfriend and I were ordering some pizza, and the delivery guy was like, “Can’t go through. There’s big protests are happening.”

But anyway, this was top of mind when I was writing the book, of course. And, you know, I understood that to a certain extent, a lot of these rules were rooted in explicit attempts to segregate cities, but I didn’t realize how close the connection was. A lot of the rules that are even still on the books to this day were adopted in the immediate aftermath of Buchanan v. Warley, where the Supreme Court said, “We’re not going to tolerate inexplicably racial zoning.”

So in the 19-teens, you had cities like Louisville and St. Louis say, “We’re going to assign racial designations to blocks and say ‘White people can live here and Black people can live there.’” In a rare moment of racial clarity from this time period, the Supreme Court said, “We’re not going to allow that.” But then in the aftermath of that, what you get is a scramble of cities trying to come up with some other way to segregate cities.

And what they touch on is zoning regulations that allow you to segregate on the basis of socioeconomic condition. So, the connection here is the ability to determine what can be built where is the ability to determine who gets to live where. If you can say that only housing of a certain cost can be built in certain places, that effectively allows you to determine the type of person that can live there. And of course if you can segregate a city based on class, in the U.S. context, in many cases, you could segregate the city based on race.

Of course, on the East Coast, the segregation being pursued was White-Black segregation. But if you look at early zoning history in California, you see very similar issues with White-Asian attempts at segregation. A lot of U.S. — a lot of land-use law that actually comes out of California comes from cases of explicit attempts to segregate Asian Americans into certain neighborhoods.

You know, when I — for example, Berkeley, just to quickly touch on this. Everybody knows about New York City being one of the first cities to adopt zoning in 1916, but Berkeley also adopted zoning in 1916. And it’s actually much more interesting because it was the first zoning code that adopted single family zoning. And if you actually read it — like if you read the documents promoting what they’re trying to do — they will explicitly say, “This will allow us to segregate our community.” 

The fourth sort of connection here that I would like to draw is the relationship between zoning and sprawl or the environment. So I think this is, you know, of course top of mind in a place like Hawaii. It’s top of mind in a place like California. There are beautiful natural areas that you want to preserve. The irony is that, at the same time that we say we really want to preserve our natural areas, in many cases we have zoning rules that make it impossible to actually build in existing urban areas.

And just about the only type of development that zoning isn’t antagonistic toward, more often than not, is new residential single-family homes on the periphery, on greenfields. Now, that’s not to say — I think cities, of course, historically have always expanded outward in an incremental way. That’s appropriate. It’s appropriate for local governments to identify areas of environmental value and to conserve them. 

But what we do in many U.S. cities is we say, “It’s illegal to build anything other than that. It’s illegal to take a detached single-family home and add a little bit more density. It’s illegal to build neighborhoods where folks can walk to life’s daily needs. It’s illegal to build neighborhoods where folks can maybe have a corner grocery or a corner doctor’s office or a corner barbershop.” 

These are the type of daily commercial uses that actually kept neighborhoods highly walkable — and of course that’s a much more environmentally friendly way to grow. It’s not to say that everybody should live like that, and everybody wants to live like that. But what we do in the U.S. is that we don’t actually give people a choice. We say, “You essentially have one mode of living, and it’s a very car-oriented mode of living where, in general, the only home that you can afford is going to be out on the periphery of town.”

Great. So, now everyone is sufficiently depressed. Yes? Everyone’s sad on the issue. The good news is we’re living in a really special time right now, right? We’re living in a moment where I think there’s actually a lot of reform energy around this issue, and so I’m going to talk a little bit about what that looks like. 

As I mentioned at the top of the talk, I’m with California YIMBY, part of a broader “Yes In My Back Yard” movement to try to roll back a lot of these rules.

Some water here — I’m going to pull a Marco Rubio. Was that too dated of a reference? Yeah. Great. 

So, paths to reform. So, I think there’s three general ways that we can pursue reform here. Of course, local governments under our current system are delegated these powers, and they have wide authority over how they use them. Local governments can remove a lot of these barriers today, right? And many of them, as I’m going to say, as I’m going to talk about a minute, are.

The second is: It’s totally appropriate for states to put up guardrails around the local administration of these powers. As I mentioned, these are powers that are delegated from state governments to local governments, and it’s appropriate when local governments are using these powers in ways that stymie the production of starter homes or entrench patterns of segregation for state governments to come in and say, “Hey, we’re going to put up some guardrails on how you administer that power.” 

But in the longer term, as I argue in the final chapters of the book, I think it’s also time for a fundamental rethink of what we want land-use planning to do. What do we want land-use planning to achieve? It’s clear that the current system hasn’t worked, and we can reform it, and I think that’s really wise. But I also think it’s appropriate to have a bigger conversation of what it would look like to reimagine our land-use planning system.

So, local reform — I want to highlight one interesting example from Houston. Of course Houston, as I’ll mention in a minute, doesn’t actually have zoning — for unusual reasons — but they do have a lot of zoning-like rules, and one of those zoning-like rules was minimum lot sizes. Yeah, so those, again, are rules that said, “You cannot subdivide a detached single-family home unless you have so much land.” Until 1999, Houston did not allow you to have a detached single-family home unless you had 5,000 square feet of land.

Now, of course, as land values were going up, they were in a situation where many families — increasingly working in middle-class families — didn’t have a path to home ownership near existing job centers. So what they did — to their credit — was they talked to folks who built housing, they talked to folks who wanted to buy housing, and they came up with a solution. They lowered minimum lot sizes from 5,000 square feet to 1,400 square feet, and they set standards that actually made that work.

And when we studied this reform in 2016, what we found [was] hat over a span of about 15 years, this reform had created 25,000 new units. Those were new homes that actually gave people stability, got them on the path to home ownership, gave them some ownership in the community at very little taxpayer expense. This is a positive reform that, you know, there’s some interesting details there that I talk about in the book of how they made that work, but reforms like this are underway all over the country.

So, this is Gainesville, Florida, they eliminated what, you know, we call it ending single-family zoning — the better way to put it is they ended a ban on apartments in most of their residential areas. There’s weird politics there, but I won’t go into that. 

Fayetteville in Arkansas eliminated minimum parking requirements. Just said, “Look, we have all these strip malls, we have all these parking lots that we can’t really do anything with, let’s remove these mandates and allow these properties to actually be redeveloped.”

Raleigh [North Carolina] is dramatically rethinking their entitlement process. So Raleigh, like many jurisdictions, said that if you want to get a permit, you have to actually go to all of these public hearings — neighborhood councils, community groups — in many cases, groups that were not representative of the actual broader community. They’re completely rethinking that and reimagining what it would actually look like to get some of these projects through that they know they need.

Accessory dwelling units. Anybody know what an accessory dwelling unit is? Heard of them? Maybe a granny flat, mother-in-law unit. Before zoning, it was quite common to have these in residential neighborhoods. 

So these are essentially additional residential units that are hosted in an unused garage or an unused attic or in a shed in the backyard, you know, separate detached structure in the backyard. It’s very common for these to actually pop up. You know, folks might want to build them to host aging parents or to host young adult children who maybe weren’t ready to own their own home — or even just to rent out and have an additional source of income to help pay down a mortgage and stay in the home. 

But, of course, in many cities — California included — until recently, these were largely illegal. The state had been trying for something like 40 years to get local governments to legalize them. In 1982, California said, “Hey, local governments, please legalize ADUs; but if you really don’t want to, you can write a book report, and that’ll be OK.” But in 2016, we changed approach, and we said, “OK, we’re going to set statewide standards for accessory dwelling units; and if a homeowner meets these standards, you have to permit the project. It has to be permitted in a timely manner, and you can’t charge them exorbitant fees.”

And as you can see in the chart on the right: When those regulations came into effect in 2016, ADU permitting boomed. It turned out that many homeowners actually wanted to add these units to their properties. Now, I know [there] is a little bit of interesting history with that in Hawaii, and we can talk about that in the Q&A, but it’s been a really big success in California. 

And, you know, just this past year, in fact, one in four homes in Los Angeles was an ADU. Now that partly speaks to how little Los Angeles actually builds, but that also partly speaks to the success of the program. These were units — the many of thousands of units — that would not have existed were it not for the statewide reform. 

Other examples of state governments putting up guardrails around local powers in California. In California, we’ve been pushing for a lot of bills like this. In 2021, we had a big bill — SB9 — which legalized duplexes and small lot single-family homes statewide. SB10, we cleared environmental review hurdles for projects that we knew were going to be infill housing, the type of housing our state needed. 

Just this past year, we legalized mixed-income, multi-family [units] in commercial zones. So in California — like in many states — we had a problem where we had strip malls that were sitting half vacant or we had a lot of office parks that in an era of remote work, those were never going to be fully occupied again. So we created a framework where statewide, “Hey, these can be mixed income multi-family units.” 

AB2097, a similar thing. We removed minimum parking requirements within a half-mile transit. That is to say in the areas where residents might be most likely to say, “Yes, I would prefer a cheaper unit but without a parking space.” 

The state of California, like many states, had spent billions of dollars investing in our transit infrastructure, and then we had a situation where these — you can go see, it’s still in LA — you had transit stations that were surrounded by, you know, parking lots and parking garages, right? When that could have been mixed-income, mixed-use walkable communities. AB2097 said no more parking requirements within a half mile of transit. 

One of the things I love about this policy area is that it’s not particularly partisan or ideological. You know, you have red states undertaking these reforms just like blue states. 

Utah, for example, has been putting up guardrails around local zoning powers to say, “Hey, we want to see you do some reform. We want to see some liberalization of these zoning barriers that stay in the way of new housing production.” 

In Oregon — you know, going back to a blue state — the state eliminated single family zoning and said, “Hey, in smaller cities you have to allow duplexes in all residential zones. In bigger cities you have to allow fourplexes.” Again, that’s allowing for new housing to be built within existing cities that leverages existing infrastructure in context where, in many cases, homeowners are eager to build it. 

Process. Right? We talk a lot about the substance of zoning rules — the process is equally important. If you have great zoning but it takes two years to get your permits, it’s not that great, right? 

In a state like Minnesota, they have a 60-day shot clock rule, where they say local regulators either need to, within 60 days, deny a permit with justification or issue the permit. That lends a high degree of reliability and predictability to the system.

Now in the U.S. here, I think we are generally very used to explaining to other countries how to do things, right? So, I mean, there was that recent — did anybody hear about this where Pete Buttigieg was like, “We’re going to go explain to other countries how to build transit infrastructure,” and the reaction from the transit community was a collective groan. We’re the most efficient builder in the world. 

We actually have, on this issue as well, I think there’s a fair amount that we can learn from other countries. So, in the book, I explore what I take to be more effective zoning systems from abroad. You can look to Japan, but France has a very similar system to this. It’s different from the U.S. both in terms of substance and process. 

On the substance of the matter, even the strictest Japanese residential zoning district — and this is true of France as well — will allow low-rise multi-family. It’ll allow three-story apartment or duplexes or small multi-family buildings. It will allow corner groceries or local neighborhood-serving retail that’s often illegal in U.S. cities. 

On the process, too, is also quite interesting. Here in the U.S., we allow almost every single local government to write their own zoning code completely de novo. So we just say, within general boundaries, local governments get to write their own zoning. And that gets you a system that’s, in general, highly restrictive and highly unpredictable and highly variable from jurisdiction to jurisdiction.

In Japan, a higher level of government defines the zoning districts that can be mapped, and local governments map them. Similar system in France. That gets you a high degree of reliability and consistency, and that avoids the opportunity of NIMBY groups at the local level hijacking the process and writing into law zoning rules that are extremely restrictive. 

I think there are also lessons to be learned from context here at home. So, in the book I talk a lot about Houston, which is very fascinating. You know, on the one hand, Houston’s a weird example because it made almost every other planning mistake that could have been made in the 20th century, right? The giant urban freeways; it did the botched urban renewal; it did all of these other planning mistakes. But as I argue, I think it didn’t make one really consequential mistake, and that was never adopted zoning.

And it didn’t do that because, unlike any other major American city, it was the only major American city to actually put zoning to a vote. Put it to a vote three times, and it lost every single time. 

As a result, it’s actually pretty easy in a place like Houston to take a detached single-family home and turn it into townhouses or duplex or a small multi-family building. It’s easy to take a strip mall that’s sitting half vacant and turn it into an apartment building with ground floor retail. This of course makes Houston uniquely capable of growing and evolving and adapting to meet changing needs. 

You know, sometimes when I point to Houston as, I think, an interesting example, I think there’s a little bit of judgment, right? People are like, “Well, I’ve been to Houston,” and blah, blah, blah, “it wasn’t very nice” — especially in places like California or New York. And I always caution a little bit: Well, you know, Houston’s actually the most affordable major city in America, and it’s also the most diverse now. 

And I think that’s not entirely untethered from the fact that to a unique degree in Houston, it’s actually very easy to build additional housing — both on the periphery, but especially in existing urban areas. The city can actually grow denser. It’s not totally dependent on sprawl like so many major American cities.

So I, you know, I will leave you a little bit in suspense — everybody has to go out and buy the book. It’s $30 on Amazon or local book sellers. We have an audiobook now, by the way, which they did not let me narrate. I was very upset about that. 

But, you know, I am trying to sketch out, I think, a bigger picture argument here, which is that: Yes, our land-use planning system has failed, but that doesn’t mean that we don’t need land-use planning. In fact, I think part of the cost of the current system is that we just have our priorities totally mixed up, right? 

When you go into planning, you don’t go into planning because you want to count up the number of parking spaces in a strip mall application. You don’t go into planning because you want to deny permits to somebody who wants to build a duplex in a cul-de-sac.

You go into planning because you actually want to help plan out equitable, sustainable, prosperous, integrated communities, right? That’s the work that’s actually really interesting and important, and I think there are a few things that we really could focus a lot more on, right? 

So one of the things that I think contributes to the fact that we have very strict use segregation in the U.S. is that we just don’t do a very good job of regulating impacts, right? We don’t do a very good job of dealing with things like noise or smoke or traffic generation. To the extent that we can do a better job of that, I think we can address people’s understandable concerns about growth. 

Similar thing with stewards of the public realm. You know, when I was a city planner in New York, I was working on an application for a new multi-family building, and somebody came up to me and they said, “I’m not opposed to this thing, but I ride a bus into Manhattan every day that picks up at this block, and it’s already standing room only, and in many cases, the bus is so full that it passes up my station. What are you doing to make sure that they’re going to be additional bus capacity if this gets built?”

And it was frustrating because, you know, theoretically I’m the planner, and I actually didn’t have a very good answer. The answer was, “Well, I just hope that they increase capacity. I’m sure they’ll do that no problem.” That’s, you know — this should be much more of what we’re focused on, is making sure that we’re scaling up public services and public service capacity. Planners as stewards of the public realm — dealing with the quality of life concerns that are, frankly, pretty unsexy but are actually really important. Stuff like on-street parking, stuff like traffic congestion.

In the typical U.S. city, you know — just to really drill this point home — we spend so much time micromanaging private development, and then our public realm is actually just kind of a mess. I think we should flip our focus completely. 

One example that I highlight in the book, I think is a really good model, is the City of Bastrop in a suburb of Austin, Texas. You know, when many communities are dealing with growth pressure, I think there’s a strong temptation to just pull up the ladder, stomp all growth, adopt a moratorium, down zone, block growth out. Of course, we know what that looks like, you know, in the long-term. Home prices just keep going up; your, you know, local kids have to move out; the community gets more affluent, more exclusionary over time. 

Bastrop took a different approach and said, “Yeah, we have a lot of growth pressure. We’re in metropolitan Austin. Let’s sit down and actually just make a plan for things like streets and parks and schools and make sure that new growth is paying its own way, but that we’re not going to highly dictate the form that that growth takes. We’re going to allow for maybe a mixture of different housing typologies or the occasional — God forbid — corner grocery.” right?

And what they were able to do as part of that is steer growth away from environmentally sensitive areas. They were dealing with a lot of growth that was happening in flood plains. And I think very prudently — again, rather than saying, “Well, we’re just going to stop all growth” or “We’re just going to let growth happen without any sort of plan or thought whatsoever,” they said, “Let’s embrace our role as stewards of the public realm, let’s come up with a plan that creates a framework for people to plan their own lives, and then allow that growth to happen in a positive and productive way.”

So, now that everybody’s fully in support and there’s going to be no questions, I assume, what can folks here do? Like I’ve stressed, there’s — this is a real moment happening, and there are a lot of YIMBY groups, including one YIMBY member here, pushing for reforms on these efforts. Get involved in your local YIMBY groups or other organizations that are trying to remove a lot of these barriers to new housing, barriers to building prosperous and integrated, sustainable communities.

Talk to your local and state elected officials. You know, if they’re reading any news, they’re probably already thinking about these issues, and they’re wondering, “Does anybody in my community care about this stuff? Is there a constituency for reform?” I, you know, very often I will talk to a state or a local elected official, and they’ll say, “I want to do something on this issue, but I need to make sure that folks are going to come to the public hearing and back me up. I need to make sure that folks are going to call in and support me when I introduce this bill.” So talk to them. Ask them what they’re doing. 

Same with planners, by the way. Of course, you know, you talk to a city planner, and they’ll say, “Oh, yeah, no, all of our regulations are wise and smart and valuable.” But, you know, take them — have a couple of drinks, and they’ll be like, “Yeah, I know, our parking requirements are stupid, but, you know, I can’t push for that on my own.” You can be that cover for folks who, within the civil service, who want to do the right thing.

And then, the third is leverage new laws and build the housing. You know, it’s been interesting doing this work in California. We’ll pass laws that allow for new types of housing, and there’s a slow learning curve of folks who could actually build the housing realizing this. But I, you know, there are a lot of developers out there who are really thoughtful about this stuff and actually are leveraging some of these laws and building the housing that our communities so desperately need. If we passed the laws but no housing units get built, right, it wasn’t worth it. 

So with that, I generally find that the conversations are the most interesting part of these things, so I look forward to your questions. And thanks again, for everyone coming out.


Kent: Thanks so much, Nolan. That was awesome. I want to make a few announcements before we get to Q&A. So, first, we’ve got pizza after this. So everyone here, we hope you grab a slice or two. And when we do Q&A, make sure you say your name so that we can know who you are. Also, restrooms if you want to use it, there’s a code: 1345*.

Audience member: 31 …

Kent: 3145.


Kent: Just ask Shawn. And finally, yes — there’s a member of the local YIMBY chapter here, Matt Popovich. Could you raise your, uh, yeah, wave your hand there? Could you announce something about your group or say who you are?

Matt Popovich: Yeah, so, we actually started pretty recently in September. If you want to get involved, go to hawaiiyimby.com or follow @hawaiiyimby on Instagram. Yeah, we’re doing some legislative advocacy and other fun stuff. We do monthly happy hour, so yeah, I hope some folks will get involved. Thank you.

Kent: Thanks. So make sure to connect with Matt if you’d like to get involved with that. 

So I’d like to get, go to Q&A. But first I want to ask you something, Nolan, which is the difference between — you mentioned zoning and planning. I mean, in my mind, zoning and planning is kind of like the same thing. So how do you see those as different concepts?

Gray: Yeah, I mean, so, planning is a thing that humans have been doing basically since we started settling down, right? So, I mean, in the Western tradition, you know, we think of city planning starting with, you know, ancient Greek settlers going out across the Mediterranean and gridding out the city and saying this is where the open space and the civic center is going to be. 

Humans have been doing stuff like that since we started settling down, so that’s a broader project, right? That encompasses everything that we would put under the umbrella of land-use planning. You know, streets planning, environmental planning, parks planning, schools, public facilities. That’s a really important and difficult and complex project. 

Zoning is a very particular subset within that. It’s a system of regulations where we essentially say we’re going to segregate uses and restrict densities. Now, of course, here in the U.S., we’re in a weird system where zoning has kind of like overtaken planning, and zoning ends up being almost all that we do.

Kent: So you’re saying that you can plan without zoning?

Gray: Yeah, absolutely, yeah. 

Kent: I see.

Gray: That’s how planning worked until 1916.

Kent: Any questions? Any other questions? Yeah, could you state your name?

Christian: It’s Christian [unintelligible 00:42:51]. I’m in the third-year evening part-time program here at the school. Actually, that’s a great lead in to my question in terms of distinguishing between planning and zoning, and your question actually is a variation of my question. 

So if we tried to have a solution, or the zoning, and now we have alternative structures being built up with different uses, don’t they require different infrastructure constraints? 

So, for example, we would have capacity sewer constraints here that may not be able to accommodate the needs of multi-family. I’m not voicing a political side, I’m just trying to figure out how we solve that too.

Gray: No, yeah, absolutely. I mean, I think this is where we need planning, right? I think you need planning offices to actually sit down and say, realistically, based on what we think’s going to happen with population growth and economic growth, this is going to be the long-term capacity of our system. 

In many U.S. cities, because family sizes have actually fallen, household sizes have fallen, in your typical residential area, there’s actually a little bit of excess capacity. And, for example, in the context in California, where there’s been a big building boom of accessory dwelling units maybe potentially increasing the housing stock in a particular neighborhood by 25%, there haven’t been a lot of cases where we were actually hitting sewer capacity. 

Now, of course, if you are taking maybe a neighborhood and doing what Houston was doing, where you have a whole block of single-family homes that was turned into three or four townhouses each, yeah, you’re going to have to do sewer upgrades. 

And ideally, you’re setting impact fees such that each one of those developments is chipping in to the cost of those upgrades. You don’t want to force those costs onto incumbent resonances, you want new development to internalize the cost of the new infrastructure. But that’s just, you know, that’s the type of nuts and bolts unsexy planning work that jurisdictions have to do.

And it is a hard problem. I mean, to your credit here, I mean, it’s a tough problem. A lot of jurisdictions respond to it by saying, “Well, we don’t have the sewer capacity, and like, we just don’t want to deal with the growth.” But I think that’s unsustainable on another margin, which is just, then you just accept that you’re not going to have new housing production and you back your way into a housing affordability crisis.

Kent: Next question. Oh yeah, here you go. I’ll just give you the mic here so everyone can hear. Here you go. What’s your name?

David Mulliken: Yes. David Mullikin, retired mainland environmental lawyer. One just clarification question, Nolan, just and following up on the question you just got. Planning versus zoning: Would you characterize Houston as planning without zoning?

Gray: Well, I mean, they do planning work. I don’t necessarily know that I would agree with all of the particular planning things they do. Yes.

Mulliken: Yeah, understood. And the more, the question I’m more intrigued about — perhaps within the last year, I saw an article, I want to say maybe in The Atlantic from a very unlikely source, with what I thought was not the conclusion I anticipated to see from any article published in The Atlantic. 

The argument was made by someone, and I apologize I don’t know his name, but there was an analysis of what had gone wrong in LA and why housing had ceased to be affordable in LA. 

And the thrust of the argument was that until the 1950s, Los Angeles and most of California utilized a top-down planning model. But that beginning in the 1950s and moving forward, it reverted, or should I say, it became a bottom-up planning model where power devolved to the community planning groups, and that in turn fed NIMBYism and limited the ability to adapt in a flexible way to changing needs. 

And I’m curious if I’m — perhaps you’ve seen the article, perhaps not — I thought the arguments were fairly compelling. But I’m curious how you see that notion fitting into the, your paradigm, if at all.

Kent: Thank you.

Gray: Yeah, thank you. I’m not familiar with the specific article you’re referencing, but yes, between the ’60s and ’80s, Los Angeles adopted a series of community plans where, generally, local groups of homeowners were coming and rewriting the zoning for their neighborhood. 

And, you know, estimates vary, but it seems like that cut the zone capacity of Los Angeles in half. It became much, much, much more difficult, and there was much more discretion added to the permitting process. 

Now, just to put that in historical context, I think we were coming off of a period of highway construction that destroyed a lot of neighborhoods, of urban renewal projects that wiped out our neighborhoods. 

There were, I think, very sympathetic reasons why we wanted to do a lot more community involvement in planning. The concern, I think, is that in places like Los Angeles, as in much of the country, those processes were hijacked by people who had very strong NIMBY preferences, and then rules were written into place that made it very, very hard to build. 

And so, I do think that underwrites Los Angeles’s affordable housing crisis, for sure. I think that’s a major contributor.

Kent: Nolan, what about environment, yeah, [the] environmental case for zoning? If we don’t have zoning, then who’s going to protect the environment? Or is there a case to be made that zoning may hurt the environment in some way?

Gray: Yeah. I mean, just about the only form of development that zoning isn’t antagonistic to is new, detached single-family homes on the periphery. Now, there are other regulations that might make those hard to build, but in general, the thing that you’re allowed to build on almost any parcel in the U.S. is a detached single-family home. 

And when you want to build something in an existing urban area, or if you want to build a denser form of housing, that’s when we hold you to incredibly high levels of scrutiny. From an environmental perspective, that’s kind of flipped, right?

I mean, again, I think that there’s — it’s perfectly natural for cities to grow out in an incremental way and to have new greenfield development in places where there’s not environmental risks or conservation value, but that shouldn’t be the only form of housing that we allow. 

And so for sure, if you want to deal with problems of, you know, protecting natural areas from growth or making sure that folks have the option — if they want it — to live in a neighborhood where they don’t have to own a car, then you have to allow certain types of infill, and that’s often illegal.

Kent: I see. Single-family zoning stretches housing out into an urban sprawl that uses more environmental land, and so if you want to “Keep the country country,” you have to “Keep the city a city,” and so on. 

Any questions? Over here, let me — I can’t reach you, but could you say your name?

Eric: My name is Eric. I actually spoke with you several months ago. Good to see you. 

My question is: Is zoning something that should be just significantly curtailed to become less restrictive? Or is it something that, at the end of the day, we should move towards just getting rid of it completely?

Gray: Yeah, so, I mean, in my position at California YIMBY, I’m not rolling into, you know, Oxnard or Sacramento and saying, “You should abolish your zoning code. If you have any questions, buy my book. Bye.” 

And, I mean, our approach to it at California YIMBY is very pragmatic. Like, you know, we can get a lot of the benefits from reform, right? We can, you know, significantly reduce the housing shortage by allowing for low-rise multi-family buildings or allowing for multi-family on commercial properties.

Those sort of incremental things will, I think, ease the suffering of a lot of Californians in the near term, and it’s totally appropriate to focus on that. But to your question — and this is the argument I make in the book — in the longer term, I think we can do better. 

You know, I, as I argue, I don’t think this is a system that was well meaning originally and then was hijacked. I don’t think it’s a system that worked particularly well and then went wrong. I think it’s a system that was explicitly designed to entrench housing scarcity and segregation and sprawl, and the sooner we come to terms with that, the sooner we can hopefully start to have a productive conversation about what would it look like to have a land-use planning system that deals with the actual issues that we want to regulate for without having all of these knock-on effects.

And so, you know, as I was suggesting at the end of my talk — and I go into a lot more detail in my book — you know, regulating externalities, making sure that homeowners or property owners can be confident that new development’s not going to come with costs that are imposed on them, planners being stewards of the public realm, planners having a long-term plan for growth that doesn’t impose costs on current residents or that doesn’t lower their quality of life. 

To my mind, those are the things that we as planners — if there’s any planners in the room — really should be focused on. And I think to the — the sooner we can make the transition over to maybe this new approach to planning, I think the better off we’ll be.

Kent: Other questions?

Audience member: We do have some planners and some planning students from the planning school here, so yes.

Gray: Oh cool. Yeah.

Kelly: Yeah, my name is Kelly, and I’m not exactly sure what my question is necessarily. I feel like there are so many questions that could be asked. 

I guess, does any of this apply? I mean, for zoning and planning, it applies, I think. In terms of keeping the country country and keeping the city city, what about those who prefer to be in a more country setting? Especially in the context of a place like Hawaii, where food security and housing are both really important issues. 

So, the zoning laws in regards to agriculture — do you touch on any of that? Agriculture lands and how that can sort of tie into, I mean, you know, plenty of people, they live in the country and they commute to the city to work, you know. What if you prefer to live in the country but zoning laws prevent that from being possible?

Gray: Yeah, no, that’s a great question. You know, so, I was just in Caroline, New York, which is in upstate New York, which you might be thinking, “What the hell is that connection to Hawaii there?” But it was a rural community where you had folks pushing for zoning, and they were pushing for zoning rules that actually would make it harder to have working farms, right? 

They were pushing for rules that would have made it harder for maybe one of those farmers to start a little small bakery on his or her property or to run a little gift shop and sell stuff to keep the farm actually financially viable. So for sure, I mean, there are sort of constraints that can often make rural living difficult. To my mind, the way I think about these issues is, just provide people a choice, right? 

So I think part of what’s happened in many rural and suburban contexts is because we’ve not given Americans — including in states like Hawaii — any option other than a suburban home, they end up having to move into a type of housing development that’s going to consume rural areas when they might have preferred to live in a city, right? They might prefer to live in a place that wouldn’t have involved new development coming into rural areas. 

So, you know, to my mind, I would say that the key thing here is give people a choice. There are, of course, probably a lot of Americans who want to live in rural areas, they want to live in agricultural communities, and they want to form agreements among themselves to keep a community that looks like that. 

But, you know, if we’re in a situation where the government is saying the only way that we’re going to beat our housing demand is by consuming these lands, I think it’s understandable to say let’s rethink that.

Kent: I want to give room for another student if you’d like to ask a question.

Audience member: I got another [unintelligible 00:54:33].


John: Oh, oh. Well, there’s a young student way in the corner over there. Yes, Wendell. Go ahead. [laughs]

Wendell Brooks: All right. Wendell Brooks. We have a situation here of multiple zoning.

Kent: Here you go.

Brooks: Thank you, Joe. 

We have the Land Use Commission, we have the general plan, and we have the detailed land-use map, and we have a parcel — actual zoning of a parcel. And that creates a difficult system for people seeking to change land use, and I appreciate you commenting on that. 

And then the other sort of infrastructure-related item is availability of water, which is a serious problem here, and particularly in other areas like in Kona on the Big Island. Thank you.

Gray: Yeah, thank you for the question. You know, I’ve learned from experience to not go into too much detail on local fights. I don’t want to be the guy that’s like, “Ah, I’ve been in Hawaii six days, let me tell you how to fix your land-use planning system.” 

But no, I think those are concerns that are actually quite common. You know, I would say, you have a framework in many jurisdictions where you have to go to multiple different agencies to get approvals or you have to have multiple different public hearings at multiple different levels of government.

To my mind, like a much healthier version of the system would be to say here’s the type of development that we’re comfortable with, if — a near-term fix to zoning — here’s the type of development we’re comfortable with, if you meet these standards, you’re entitled to your permits as of right within a specified period, and we’re not going to drag you along, jerk you along, make the project much more expensive and politically risky. 

To water, I think this is a similar point to stormwater and sewer infrastructure. I think you have to make a long-term plan for this. I think it’s perfectly appropriate for communities to say, you know, “Hey, like when we’re hitting up against actual physical constraints, we might have some limits,” but that can’t be the long-term solution. 

The longer-term solution has to be, “OK, we have to allow some of this growth to make sure that we can remain a place that’s affordable to folks who grew up here or folks who want to move here and build a new life here, and what’s our long-term plan for water?” 

Again, when you’re hitting up against physical constraints, right, it can be complex, but I think that’s the project of planning is to sit down and think through some of these problems and think through how they can be managed.

Kent: I saw a question over here from Mark Monoscalco. Do you still have that? Go ahead.

Mark Monoscalco: Thanks, Nolan. It’s been very interesting. Is there any room in this discussion for the bigger picture like the Houston solution where you just eliminate zoning? There must be a lot of other places in the world, right, that have never actually attempted to do the zoning ordinances? And how does that fit in — that concept — how would that fit into “Yes In My Back Yard”? 

Gray: Yeah, so, interesting question. I would say that it’s certainly the exception. So, the most typical other example or context is other jurisdictions will have zoning that it is just so flexible and liberal that it’s not necessarily binding on new growth. So I think that’s likely, broadly speaking, the condition in a place like Tokyo or a place like Paris. 

Paris will have very strict rules on what a building looks like, but they’re not going to have strict rules on the number of units in that building or the specific land uses in that building. In Japan, there are going to be broad rules on the massing of the building, but those are generally going to be flexible to where they’re not realistically — at the city level — a binding constraint on new growth. 

That’s the model that I actually think is if we, you know, if we’re thinking of radical solutions to changing up how we do land-use planning but short of a Houston style approach, we would do well, I think, to learn from those other zoning systems where maybe a higher level of government is playing a valuable role in liberalizing some of these rules and creating consistency in reliability and maybe allowing for a little bit more flexibility.

Kent: We’ve got time for a few more questions. I had one, while I make my way over there, is deed restrictions. You’re talking about in Houston, they don’t use zoning as much as they use deed restrictions. So how does that work, and what are they?

Gray: Yeah, so this is, I mean, this is part of the political challenge with land-use planning, right? Is that there are some people who want something like R-1 style zoning. They want maybe a neighborhood that’s all detached single-family homes — only residential, no apartments, no commercial — and maybe they have the political power to achieve that somehow, right? 

So in most jurisdictions, what we did is we said, “OK, well, great, we’re going to write those preferences into law, we’re going to have an R-1 zoning district, and it’s going to allow for the preferences of those people who maybe have extremely restrictive land-use preferences to be enforced.”

In Houston, there was an interesting compromise there where they said if you want to voluntarily opt into that stuff, like if you want to voluntarily opt into a set of rules with your neighbors regulating what types of land uses and densities are allowed near you, you can do that, and the city will actually even be deferential to it in permitting. But what the city’s not going to do is the city’s not going to come in and say, “We’re going to make these rules, these preferences, a matter of law such that they’re impossible to change” or “We’re not going to give you the ability to, you know heckle [or] veto projects that are outside of the area where you’ve reached some agreement.” 

It’s a compromise, right? And it still gets you neighborhoods that are very hard to build in. And, you know, to a certain extent, you might get neighborhoods where you have to be very wealthy to live there. But it’s a compromise that’s kept the city as a whole much more liberal in terms of how it approaches land use, and I think that’s been positive.

Kent: Thank you. A question over here. Oh, could you state your name? Go ahead.

Logan Iraqi: Hi. Yeah. Logan Iraqi. I’m a student here on the pre-L. Trying to make this question as broad as possible to, you know, address a couple of topics, but what are your opinions on, I guess, the method of using conditions to zoning as opposed [to or] in terms of private development situations? 

In Hawaii, we had a lot of new private developments go up, and there’s a lot of governmental exactions or whatnot. What is your opinion on the effectiveness of that kind of strategy when on one side, people are saying for new developers to pay their fair share, whereas public housing can run into the issues of, especially here, permitting backups, long procurement processes? Like what is your general opinion on that strategy in putting more housing, just the market in general?

Gray: Yeah, thanks for the question. You know, I think it’s totally appropriate to expect that new development pays for the marginal infrastructure that it requires or chips in to some fair share for provisioning the public services that are going to be necessary. 

But what I see often is that these conditions or exactions are often effectively used as revenue generation or they’re essentially used to basically squeeze new residents for benefits that we don’t expect incumbent residents to pay for, and so I think there’s a very fine line there. 

Of course there’s — I mean, you’re a 3L, you know this — there’s a lot of law regulating what local governments can and can’t do, and I think in theory it’s meant to be pursuing that. It’s meant to be saying no, you only get to have conditions or exactions that are tied to, you know, some actual impact caused by the new development, and they have to be roughly proportional, et cetera. The closer that I think we can get to that ideal, the better. 

And I think, you know, it’s perfectly valid to have fees or exactions that reflect impacts. But, like I say, this often gets abused, right? In, for example, there was a jurisdiction in the Bay Area that said that if you want to build a duplex, you have to pay $90,000 to the parks trust fund for every single one of those units. 

At that point, I think we’re like a little bit untethered from the like proportional impact of those two new units, right? That’s a far cry from saying, “Hey, like, we want you to chip in a couple of thousand bucks for the sewer connection and like the water fund that we’re, you know, building up to make significant upgrades.”

Kent: We have a question here. Go ahead.

Isabel Tual: Hi, I’m Isabel Tual, also in the land-use class. I was wondering: We talk a lot about how zoning is important for, you know, regulating nuisance, things like that, but what are the — like, on the other side — what are the downsides to getting rid of zoning and like what you are proposing?

Gray: Yeah, thanks for the question. So there’s actually a whole chapter in my book on steel manning zoning. I think there are two good arguments that could be made for what you might say zoning is trying to do. 

The first is that we know that there are potentially incompatible neighbors, right? So there are certain land uses that we just don’t want near each other. Like, you know, you don’t want heavy industry near residential — that’s a totally valid concern. 

And then the second is you want some level of coordination between growth on private land and infrastructure that services that. You know, I think that if you actually look at the motivations for zoning, they were very different from those two justifications. But those to me are two perfectly valid concerns folks might have and why they would seek land-use regulations to achieve those.

As I argue in the book, I think zoning doesn’t necessarily accomplish those tasks. And to the extent that it does, it accomplishes them in the most destructive possible way. I mean, in many cases, we solve the issue of incompatible neighbors by forcing nuisance uses into low-income marginalized neighborhoods or we solve the problem of coordinating growth with infrastructure by saying, well, we’re just not going to allow any growth if we don’t have the infrastructure there. I think we can do better.

Kent: Another question here. Go ahead.

Larry: Hi, I’m Larry. In my circle of colleagues and family, I’ve found that most people, they don’t know kind of the racist origins of zoning. I was wondering if you found that to be the case also. 

And a related question: When I do tell people the true origins of how zoning came about, I found it to be a pretty effective way to at least open them up to be more open to how zoning can be very harmful. I was wondering for, in the work that you’ve done and the organizations you’ve worked with, what have you found to be the most effective ways, either data points or arguments or it’s just stories that open people up to seeing things a little bit differently?

Gary: Yeah, thanks for the question. I mean, I think the relationship between a lot of these rules and explicit attempts at segregation is a key part of the story. And I think that when most people learn a little bit more about this, they start to question why we have these rules in place, I mean, so, right? 

So, for example, these rules might not be, you know, strictly maintaining racial segregation today, but they very explicitly do still maintain socioeconomic segregation, and that still does have a racial implication. There’s a lot of really effective research on this. 

I mean, there was — I was reading one paper that statistically showed that jurisdictions that adopted zoning codes earlier to this day are still much more segregated than jurisdictions that were late adopters or never adopted these codes. So I think that’s crucial. 

You know, when I was talking to the folks in Minneapolis — Minneapolis made headlines for being the first city to abolish single-family zoning, which was a set of rules that say you can’t build anything other than a detached single-family home in most residential neighborhoods. Part of why they were able to accomplish that was because they made the argument —  they said, “Hey, look at the history of these rules. These rules were adopted to try to segregate our community, and if you’re, you know, people are serious that that doesn’t reflect our current values, we need to have a reckoning with some of these rules.”

So I think it’s an extremely effective part of the story. Survey evidence is a little bit iffier. So I, you know, I was seeing some survey evidence that showed that people weren’t particularly moved by that argument, and that they’re actually more moved by maybe, “Hey, don’t you want your kids to be able to afford a home?” —  stuff like that. 

I mean, you know, as I sort of said in the talk, this is a special area, and it’s not really partisan or it’s not ideological. And I think to the extent that you can talk to people in terms of their values, I think is most effective, right?

So if I’m talking to progressives or a Democrat, I might make those cases of, “Hey, you talked a big game about equity in your campaign or sustainability in your campaign, let’s talk about some of these zoning rules that stand in the way of that.” Or if I’m talking to a Republican, I might say, “Hey, look, these are literally regulations that are stopping, you know, people from doing things that they might like to do with their property that don’t harm anybody in any way.” 

And so, you know, I think in terms of the strategy of messaging, just talk to people in terms of their values. And the great thing about zoning is that it’s dysfunctional on every level, so you can find an angle.


Kent: We’ve got time for two questions, but only if they’re quick, so — oh, here’s one right here. Go ahead.

Gerard Dericks: Hi, Nolan. Thank you for your talk. My name is Gerard Dericks from Hawaii Pacific University. My question is: Putting on our economist hat, we know that prices are determined by both demand and supply. Your talk is looked at the supply side of the equation. 

Problem is, politicians really hate, you know, changing the supply regulations, but they’re very keen to mess around with demand. And recently in Hawaii, we have a proposal to try to limit out-of-state buyers here in Hawaii. My question to you is: Does force demand reductions have any history of achieving meaningful long-term price reductions?

Gary: Yeah, thanks for the question. I mean, that’s always the temptation — right? — is let’s blame it on an outsider. You know, the evidence that I’ve seen of attempts to curtail purchases by foreign buyers in the West haven’t particularly had a significant price impact. 

A whole bunch of jurisdictions have tried stuff like this, like taxing vacant units, and it just turns out, “Oh, actually like there’s not a lot of vacant units sitting around.” You know, foreign buyers actually are just a really small part of the market. You know, that might vary in a place like Hawaii, but the evidence that I’ve seen from places like Vancouver hasn’t been particularly robust. 

I’ll say one more thing on this: You know, when I talk in a place like Arizona or Nevada, there’s a very similar temptation. There’s this, you know, “Well, our problems are just because Californians are moving here, and if the Californians would just stop moving here, we wouldn’t have this problem.” And, you know, I’m in the awkward position of saying, “Well, yes, we’re working on that in California, we’re trying to like build more housing so that people don’t have to leave. But also, you know, these are beautiful states. Like, people are going to move here.” 

The U.S. — we don’t have a system of internal passports, nor should we or will we. People are going to move to places where they want to live. Maybe if they’re not placed out of places like California, some of that growth will slow down a little bit. But folks are still going to move here, and you can respond to that in one of two ways. 

You can respond to that by saying, “Well, we’re just not going to build anymore. We’re not going to build anymore to accommodate all of that demand, and we’re going to basically back our way into the housing crisis.” 

Or you can sit down and be realistic and say, “Look, there’s a certain amount of demand, efforts to curtail demand don’t seem to be very effective or are in violation of, you know, Constitutional protections, so let’s accommodate some of the growth to make sure that that new demand can be satiated in a way that doesn’t harm people who already live here.”

Kent: Question right here. Go ahead.

Mark Coleman: OK, hi. I’m Mark Coleman. I’m actually with the Grassroot Institute also. We hosted a fellow from the American Enterprise Institute, the Housing Center, Tobias Peter, here a couple of times, and he was very knowledgeable about the situation. 

He talked about the Tokyo Model a lot, which is what we actually call it — the Tokyo model. But also recently, he was talking about Seattle having a lot of progress in changing zoning laws to provide for more housing. 

And then third, there’s something in the news about just yesterday, because of state law and San Francisco not complying quickly enough with it, suddenly there’s no more zoning laws in the San Francisco area. You talked about the Bay Area, so what do you know about any of that stuff?

Gary: Yeah, so my book comes out and six months later, we abolish zoning in San Francisco. [laughter] 

No, so, yeah, that — there’s a little bit of wonky history there. So, California has been trying to solve this problem for decades, and one of the solutions was, “Let’s just say, based on population and economic growth, here is, broadly speaking, how much housing we know each jurisdiction needs to be allowing to be built, and we want to see local governments come up with a plan to allow that new housing.” [It] doesn’t say local governments have to build it, not requiring anything to be built, but you have to come up with a plan to at least allow it.

Over the past few years, those laws have been beefed up quite a bit, such that local governments can’t really play games. So what local governments did for decades was they would adopt bad faith plans or they would adopt plans that they knew would never actually result in any housing getting built. 

Now, those laws are much more robust, and we have an attorney general who’s, you know, to his great credit, very eager to enforce those and remove a lot of these regulatory barriers to the housing production, and cities that don’t comply basically lose their local zoning.

So we’re saying to local governments, “Hey, you know —.” This is one of the push backs that you get whenever you do any statewide zoning reform, is the local governments come and they say, “No, no, we’ll come up with local solutions. Trust us. We’ll, you know, we’ll — .” It really is like, you know, someone with a drinking problem. They’re like, “Oh yeah, this is my last, like — [laughter] — I, this is my last bender. You know, I promise I’ll stop.” 

But we played this game with local jurisdictions for decades. And eventually, the state said, “No, like, we’re going to put up guardrails here, and we want to see a plan. And if the plan doesn’t comply, developers who come in to propose to build housing with at least a certain portion that’s income-restricted [are] entitled to permits.” And, you know, we’ve — developers are slowly wising up to this and realizing, “Oh, like, I can actually apply for these units,” so.

Kent: Thank you.

Coleman: San Francisco missed the deadline, huh?

Gray: I think San Francisco actually was compliant. But a few jurisdictions like Oakland, Santa Monica, a few jurisdictions didn’t submit compliant plans. So get your zoning applications in while you can.

Kent: I want to end soon, but I want to give one more question to someone from, uh, this is Gary Okuda from the Land Use Commission, I believe. So, go ahead.

Gary Okuda: Yeah, my name’s Gary Okuda. I am an attorney, and I sit on the state Land Use Commission. I just wanted to say thank you very much for this talk. 

I think in Hawaii, we need new ideas. We need an open discussion. We have too many of our young people feeling that they have to live elsewhere. And we’ll get nowhere in this community unless people are willing to listen to new ideas, listen to common sense. 

So thank you very much for coming to Hawaii, sharing your thoughts. I want you to know that even if you didn’t narrate it, I just downloaded your audio book, [laughter] and I will listen to it on the way back home. And hopefully, you’ll get a portion of the royalties. So thank you very much. Mahalo.

Gray: Yes. And everybody, if you want to do that now [laughter]. But thank you. It’s been a real pleasure being here, and folks have been extremely hospitable.

And, you know, I think California and Hawaii are kind of in a similar situation in that these are two earthly paradises where a lot of people want to live. And, you know, I think we should have plans to make sure that we can accommodate that and make sure that future families and folks who want to move to our communities have a path to home ownership.

Coleman: Or stay here.

Gray: Or stay here. Right. Absolutely.

Kent: Well, how about a round of applause again for Nolan.


Kent: A wise man once told me, don’t get between a land-use class and their pizza. So we have pizza outside for the students and everyone here,. Remember the bathroom code is 3145. Just — star — just ask a student if you don’t know. And thanks so much. 

Oh, and please make sure to fill out these comment cards. We’d like to know how we did today, so thank you.

Thomas: Yeah, and thank you to the Grassroot Institute for making this possible.


Audience member: Yeah, thank you.

Kent: Thank you.

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