How Biden Can Free America From Its Zoning Straitjacket

The president wants his plan to prioritize and address “longstanding and persistent racial injustice,” but limiting density has long kept Black Americans out of leafier enclaves. The urban economist Matt Resseger finds that in Greater Boston, blocks that allow multifamily housing have more Black and Hispanic people than neighboring blocks zoned for single-family housing. The sociologist Douglas Massey finds the zoning that limits density also leads to greater segregation between rich and poor.

The current web of land-use restrictions will also stymie the president’s hope to achieve “net-zero emissions by 2050.” Household carbon emissions are much lower when we build in areas, like California, with moderate climates, yet those are the areas where land-use controls are the most extreme. Both household and travel-related carbon emissions decline when we build at greater densities. And regulations that limit new construction keep Americans living in older structures that typically use more energy.

Linking infrastructure spending to permitting new construction makes sense, because the benefits of infrastructure are higher when more people can locate near enough to use that infrastructure. President Biden wants to “expand transit and rail into new communities,” but that make senses only if those communities add enough housing so there are enough riders to cover the fixed costs of transit.

The plan’s goal is to invest about 1 percent of gross domestic product per year over eight years, so the regulation-related requirements imposed on states should become more stringent over time. Conditionality should start with an “affordability and construction standard” for America’s most productive counties, which can be defined as those whose output per capita, as measured by the Bureau of Economic Analysis, is greater then three-quarters of all counties. There isn’t a problem if those productive counties are already affordable (perhaps with median prices below $350,000) or dense (perhaps having more than two houses per acre) or already supply significant amounts of new housing. But if a state has more than one or two productive counties that are expensive, not dense and failing to build, then it would have to take action to receive infrastructure funds.

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In the first year, that action could just be a piece of legislation proposed by the governor. In the second year, the legislation would have to be enacted. After that point, conditionality would depend on significant new building in expensive, productive, low density areas.

America can become more productive, equitable and greener if we free ourselves from the land use controls that limit opportunity. President Biden’s infrastructure plan can push state legislators to give landowners more rights to build. They key is for the infrastructure dollars to only flow to states that make progress fighting the scourge of regressive, repressive zoning.

Edward L. Glaeser, a professor of economics at Harvard and a leader of a Department of Transportation-funded project on the economics of transportation at the National Bureau of Economic Research, is a co-author of the forthcoming book “Survival of the City: Living and Thriving in an Age of Isolation.”

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