You can start a good library at home by leaving out the works of the Brontë sisters, Mark Twain claimed.
Recently, the Minneapolis city council, the editorial board of The New York Times and the state of Oregon have been gripped by a similar notion: We can fix our ailing cities, where four out of every five Americans reside, by pushing out single-family home owners.
And so the dream of American home-ownership expired.
To be sure, it is a progressive initiative and all parties say they mean well. But when politicans want to drive out a whole class of people, it is generally a bad idea. In this case, the class is literal: The lack of affordable housing, they say, is linked to homelessness and is caused by elites who hog land.
The Minneapolis City Council voted to end single-family zoning last December, in a city in which 70% of land is zoned for detached single-family homes. It was the first major city in the U.S. to approve such a change.
The state of California failed to pass a similar proposal, which led the Times’ Farhad Manjoo to write a column entitled “Our cities are unlivable – blame wealthy liberals,” which also is what President Trump has been saying lately. The lengthy Times editorial about Minneapolis’ move, “Americans Need More Neighbors,” called it “simple and brilliant” and went on to say it faced opposition from people “who think of themselves as progressives, environmentalists and egalitarians (and who) fight fiercely against urban development.”
Property is theft! said Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, the French anarchist, starting a ball rolling and bumping downhill that is still going 179 years later. Before him, some Christians had been preaching the same point since at least the 4th century: If you have more than you need, it does not really belong to you.
Much less has been said about zoning in modern times in part because it was considered a byword for MEGO in many newsrooms – My Eyes Glaze Over. And yet, all these people who occupy single-family homes on lots of a third of an acre or more, inside the limits of American cities, in neighborhoods zoned for single-family homes, have suddenly become, if not a story, the new enemy.
On July 1, Oregon’s legislature passed a bill the governor is expected to sign, making it the first to eliminate single-family zoning in every town and city. (In Portland, 77% of the land is zoned for detached single-family homes.)
Everyone involved hopes that these ranch and split-level houses will be replaced by triplexes and apartment buildings, because single-family zoning “is a huge entitlement program for the benefit of the most entitled residents,” The Times opined.
So it is a matter of fairness.
If cities are denser, goes the argument, they also will be better prepared to play their role in the fight against climate change. It is as though Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and President Trump, two New Yorkers, were arguing about nature. The solution? Build more skyscrapers.
Denser cities also will promote racial harmony, The Times suggests. Will people really live more harmoniously if they are crowded even more closely together? Perhaps we should defer to primatologists on this point and just say “no.”
Will they be more likely to embrace a collectivist ideology and come to see that privacy is another loathsome privilege? This seems doubtful, too, but perhaps we should defer to the experience of Soviet housing.
In any case, we assume these progressive big-city-dwellers will let us know how it works out as soon as they have a moment to themselves.