Maybe Character Shouldn't Count

MLewyn's picture

A common justification for downzoning is "community character' - the idea that a given place has a (usually suburban) character, and that this "character" justifies legal rules freezing the status quo in place.

But when city councils adopt this principle, they freeze sprawl in place forever, and make it impossible to increase a city's housing supply, thus increasing housing prices.  Moreover, if new households are kept out of neighborhood A due to concerns about "character", they have to move someplace else, usually changing the other place's "community character."  So from the standpoint of the region as a whole, reliance on "community character" is not rational.

But can anything be done about such NIMBY-oriented regulations?  It seems to me that municipal legislators have a strong incentive to listen to their constituents rather than doing what is good for the city as a whole.  So the state should act- either through legislation barring reliance on this argument, or through judicial action.  Judges generally uphold any zoning decision that has a "rational basis"; an intelligent state appellate court could hold that this particular rationale for zoning decisions is simply irrational.


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