When planning and zoning maps and codes are simple and firm, promulgated well in advance, and enforced equitably, the popular consensus is that they do a lot of good. Homeowners can rest assured the vacant lot across the street -- which shows up zoned “residential” on the maps -- won’t unexpectedly be developed as a gravel pit or a feed lot.
Of course, just because something is convenient, popular, and seemingly practical doesn’t make it wise or morally right. Zoning is that first, “teensy weensy” little government infringement on property rights, always launched with a vow (express or implied) that they won’t infringe the rights of property owners any further, honest ... a pledge which lasts precisely until the next nifty proposal comes along.
Back East, where I grew up, the vast majority of development is accomplished without recourse to the elected city council. The developer establishes that the land is zoned appropriately, and submits plans to city or county bureaucrats who check to make sure adequate water and sewer is provided, etc. Plans are stamped “OK”; construction moves forward.
Here in Southern Nevada, politicians prefer that “holding zones” be far less specific, so that virtually every project has to come before elected officials for approval. One recently departed Las Vegas Councilman is reliably reported to have pounded on the desk, demanding “I don’t care if it’s a kid’s treehouse, I want everything to come before the Council!”
Why would these officials want to sit through droning meetings about the minutiae of setbacks and curb heights? It doesn’t take too much cynicism to conclude that if developers and their lawyers need individual approval from elected officials for every project, they may be quicker to reach for their checkbooks come campaign contribution time.
But this only exacerbates the underlying problem with zoning, which is that it’s an (albeit well accepted) infringement on property rights.
The danger here is that once the councilmen fall into the habit of imagining their genius and approval are necessary before anyone can figure out how to stack cinderblock or nail two-by-fours, they will begin to imagine that government is the actual owner of all this land, entitled to decide how it’s best used, like the Todt Organization in Germany shipping guest workers by train to whatever factory they felt needed the workers most.
For example? Over the past two years, 4,105 Las Vegas apartments have been converted to condominiums, and another 4,000 have been OK’d for conversion. Concerned over a possible shortage of affordable rental housing, Councilman Steve Wolfson back in November floated the idea of a “moratorium” on such conversions.
Mind you, Mr. Wolfson did not propose that the city buy up all the remaining apartments to keep them from “going condo.” No, he simply proposed that the owners be prevented from selling their property as they see fit -- and in a manner that triggers no need for a zoning variance, since it changes residential density not one whit.
Property rights? What are those?
The Planning Commission obligingly backed a plan to create a new “special use permit” for condo conversions. Under this proposal, the City Council would appropriate to itself, out of thin air, the power to allow or disallow such a conversion based on whether members believe the neighborhood would be “best served” by the units remaining available for rent.
What next? In the interest of preserving more habitat for jackrabbits, shall the council decide whether each piece of raw land shall be developed or not? How big a “contribution” would be required to move a property off the “do not build” list? Would a plain brown envelope suffice?
“I like that we would be able to decide this on a case by case situation,” opined Councilman Lawrence Weekly.
Indeed. The crowned heads of Europe always enjoyed being able to reward their favorites with one boon or another, on a “case by case situation.” But many will recall a revolution against such methods was effected on these shores from 1776-1787, supposedly replacing England’s “cesspit of corruption” with a system under which laws are written down for all to see, well in advance, and then enforced equitably, regardless of whether the individual supplicant has done enough to “please the king.”
“We have to make sure we give people an opportunity to have a roof over the top of their heads,” Mr. Weekly continued last week.
In fact, municipalities have fared awfully poorly when they’ve tried to go into the housing business. (Why does the phrase “the projects” sound so unappetizing, these days?) The best way to provide “housing opportunity” turns out to be allowing the free market to work, with government playing the limited role of guaranteeing owners’ and investors’ property rights -- driving off squatters, etc.
This proposal does the opposite, seriously eroding property rights.
If it becomes known that building an apartment complex in Las Vegas is a good way to have your assets frozen, why on earth would anyone build apartment in this jurisdiction in the future, providing anyone with “a roof over the top of their heads”? They will only do so if they are bribed, of course, with various “tax incentives” and the like ... further warping the market and making housing a captive of government favoritism and whim. Ever tried to find an apartment in “rent-controlled” New York?
The solution is that we should have arranged any land use restrictions by private contract in the first place, rather than handing such powers to economically illiterate politicians -- always willing to violate some minority’s rights so long as it’s “popular” and “for the greater good of the many.”
If there is a shortage of apartments in Las Vegas, the City Council has it in its power to re-zone more residential land for apartments, or to reduce taxes and regulations across the board so as to encourage more construction and (resultantly) lower rents.
Or, we can experiment further with an economic system in which private parties continue to be allowed to hold title to (and pay taxes) on property, but where that property’s disposition is tightly regulated under a government bureaucracy, “for the good of all the people.”
Is there a name for that, by the way?