Ben Carson and the war on zoning

I’ve broken my promise to post once a week because a lot suddenly fell on my plate over the past couple of weeks, leaving me little time to keep with the news and write commentary. One project I hope to complete soon and publish here is a review of Antero Pietila’s “Not in My Neighborhood” about the history of residential segregation in Baltimore. But for now I will talk a bit about a major factor behind residential segregation: zoning.

Carson has proposed tying federal funds under the 1968 Fair Housing Act to easing of zoning regulations. The original intent was to forbid discrimination in housing on grounds of race. In 2015, the Obama administration changed this policy by a rule called Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing (AFFH). Under the new rule, federal funds would be conditional on taking active measures to integrate neighborhoods. Carson has been trying to dismantle these rules. Instead, HUD will dispense federal funds in accordance with local measures to ease up restrictions on multi-family housing.

Less welfare, more housing

Many media commenters portray this move as a desire to reinforce segregation, but in fact Carson is rightly pointed to stringent zoning as responsible for restricting supply of new housing and driving up rents. What’s telling is the reaction of critics. They ignore his attack on discriminatory zoning or claim that local authorities still need to work on desegregation. There is a deep-seated bias against accepting that government is to blame for social problems. Wouldn’t it be better if all government had to do was step out of the way?

I am not the only one to notice that zoning can be used to keep neighborhoods segregated. The economics is in fact very straightforward. If you impose stringent rules on what kinds of housing can be built in an area, that reduces the overall amount of land available for that kind of housing. It necessarily follows that the price of housing will be greater than what it otherwise would be. It isn’t hard to see how that can create a problem for poor people trying to buy or rent property.