The Urbanist Musings of Pete Saunders

Zoning Reform Can’t Fix Everything

Chicago’s South Shore neighborhood, looking northward toward the Loop.  Source:

It’s easy to find the critical flaw in the zoning reformer’s argument, if you remember this truism — there is greater variation within metro areas than between them.

I’ve written before in response to the growing position that strict land-use regulation, i.e., zoning, is keeping an unnecessary lid on housing construction and contributing to higher housing costs.  Proponents of this view argue that allowing the market to determine the number of units to construct, rather than the imposition of arbitrary limits, would ease affordable housing problems in high-cost cities.

As ESPN’s Lee Corso would say, not so fast, my friend.

It sounds perfectly reasonable to believe this.  It has a seductive logic.  And indeed, it might work as a solution in the most unaffordable of places.  But in the many other cities around the nation that aren’t New York or San Francisco, or Austin or Portland, doing so would not only be wrong, but it could damage cities even more than help them.  Historical and social factors guide housing policy far more than market economics, and we need to understand the biases we hold before we take such action.

My recent post on the relationship between city density and housing vacancy bears this out.  I examined the 25 largest cities by their density and housing vacancy, using 2010 U.S. Census data, and found they could be placed in one of four categories:

  • Low density/high vacancy (LD/HV)
  • Low density/low vacancy (LD/LV)
  • High density/high vacancy (HD/HV)
  • High density/low vacancy (HD/LV)
Much of the discussion on housing policy, and the possible solutions to implement, focuses on addressing the concerns of HD/LV cities, like New York, San Francisco and Boston, and to a lesser extent LD/LV cities, like San Jose or Austin.  HD/LV and LD/LV cities represent a good chunk of the top 25 cities (14, to be exact), and allowing more units is a reasonable response for them.  I mighty add, however, that the suburbs of HD/LV cities might bear a greater burden for adding units, while LD/LV cities will have to look long and hard at adding units within their boundaries.  
But what of the others?
There are LD/HV cities (Houston, Dallas, Phoenix, Indianapolis, Memphis) and, curiously, HD/HV cities (Chicago, Philadelphia, Washington, DC) that don’t fit the paradigm.  It’s in these cities where the impact of historical and social factors becomes apparent.
Let’s look at Chicago.  A year and a half ago, I wrote a piece I called Two Chicagos, Defined.  In it, I described a Chicago that’s stratified along economic lines.  Using the 2007-2011 American Community Survey (I know, it’s time to update), and focusing on just three factors — median household income, median home value, and educational attainment, I found significant divides between what I called “Global Chicago”, the rest of the city and the suburbs.  The yellow areas on the map below are the 29 zip codes in Chicago that qualified as “Global Chicago”, meaning they rank higher in the factors examined than the entire region:
And here’s how they compared statistically in 2011:
My quick analysis at the time:

“Global Chicago” is on par with the Chicago suburbs and the metro area overall in terms of income, and has a lower percentage of minority residents compared to the metro area. Interestingly, “Global Chicago” has a much higher home value and educational attainment when compared to the metro area overall or the ‘burbs. Meanwhile, “Rust Belt Chicago” lags far behind. “Rust Belt Chicago” has a large majority-minority population, has an income nearly one-half as much as the suburban households, and has only one-third as many college graduates as “Global Chicago”.

In other words, it’s clear that there are very different experiences depending on where you live in the region.  And very different responses to your immediate environment.

I decided to extend that into an examination of housing vacancies.  Using 2009-2013 American Community Survey data, I looked at housing vacancy figures for Chicago overall, the 29 “Global Chicago” zip codes, and the balance of Chicago without “Global Chicago”.  Here’s how it looks:

In the aftermath of the Great Recession, the U.S. Census showed that the housing vacancy rate for Chicago was nearly 14 percent.  For the 25 largest cities, the same figure was 11.2 percent.  The downtown/north lakefront “Global Chicago” was just under 11 percent, demonstrating its desirability.  But the rest of the city?  It has a vacancy rate more than 1.5 times higher than “Global Chicago”, at nearly 17 percent.

My point — there is a housing affordability for part of Chicago, not all of it.  Chicago, and cities like it, cannot implement supply-oriented zoning reform policies without addressing existing demand concerns.

This is where historical and social factors come in, and where the zoning reform advocates are often exposed.

Let’s look at a couple examples.  Zip code 60657 in Chicago, covering the Lincoln Park and Lakeview neighborhoods, had a vacancy rate of just 8.5 percent in 2013.  The neighborhoods are well-known for their quality housing, walkable environments, excellent transit access and great amenities.  Just ten miles to the south, however, lies the South Shore neighborhood — a great lakefront location constructed at roughly the same time, similar in terms of housing stock, also highly walkable and with great transit access, ripe for revitalization but currently lacking the same amenities.  Its vacancy rate?  An astounding 22.3 percent — 2.6 times higher than in the Lincoln Park/Lakeview area.

Why such a disparity?  The South Side has earned a reputation among the class that’s returning to cities as being off-limits — crime-ridden, poor schools, crumbling infrastructure.  In fact, it remains off the radar for most, who consider “Chicago” to be entirely that part of the city they are familiar with.  There is incredible demand for the area they’re most interested in, and in that context, a limited supply.

But Chicago is much more than that.

Any zoning reform in HD/HV cities or LD/HV cities will encounter a paradox.  New measures will be put in place, presumably citywide, to allow more units as-of-right.  However, new units will be built only in areas that have the greatest demand, and will likely be built only for the most profitable parts of the housing market — the upper and upper-middle income slices of the market.  What will emerge will be cities with concentrated development in the most in-demand areas, and continued sparse development in areas that lack the demand.

Historical and social factors will rule thousands of individual decisions and remake the city, under the guise of “impartial market forces.”

3 Responses to “Zoning Reform Can’t Fix Everything”

  1. D Holmes

    Good stuff. The \”relax zoning\” arguments have always seemed suspect to me, or something applicable to just a handful of cities that also happen to be the home cities for urban writers or researchers making these arguments I am pretty certain that Milwaukee fits the HD HV classification. On the east side, there are a lot of expensive residential areas, with no vacant land, where both zoning and resident opposition make it very challenging for developers to build additional housing units. This is a good thing, because there also happens to bra large amount of historic industrial buildings and vacant brownfield sites that are perfect for residential or mixed use redevelopment in or near the downtown. Over 5000 housing units are currently under development in these areas. The high housing prices in the traditional near downtown residential areas help support the rental prices in these areas to the level where it is economic to undertake the historic rehab or the Brownfields cleanup on these other vacant sites. Higher prices for housing in these older but still amenity rich areas (to a point) is a good thing as it makes some forms of high value redevelopment economic.


  2. Pete Saunders

    Thanks for your comment. I'd agree that from what I know of Milwaukee it would fall into the HD/HV category. By the way, of the top 25 cities only three fit that group – Chicago, Philadelphia and DC. My guess is HD/HV is something of an oulier grouping.Also, what I didn't mention in the piece is movement on the spectrum. The data I based my analysis on was from the 2010 Census, but I also looked at 2000 data. DC moved from firmly HD/HV to very nearly HD/LV in 2010. Detroit moved from HD/HV to LD/HV over the same period. Movement on this spectrum over time would be cool to track.


  3. Anon

    \”Housing\” is really providing an integrated suite of amenities:A. Shelterin a location that B. Offers:1. Public Safety2. Reasonable access to jobs (transit or other)3. Quality public schools4. Other amenities (in Chicago, access to lakefront or parks, cultural amenities, bars/restaurants/retail. etc.Supply is A shelters/units per location * B locations. You can either increase the supply of A in the given locations that offer good B (density). Or you can employ policies to improve B in existing locations (urban renewal) or greenfield ones (sprawl). But the goal is always the same. Increase A * B in areas with good B.



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