You Want a Free Market? I’ll Show You a Free Market

NIMBYism’s intellectual collapse is on view in California.

Huntington Beach: No Middle-Class Please

After patiently requesting, begging, insisting, pleading, and incentivizing local governments to plan for more affordable housing, the California Department of Housing and Community Development, armed with new powers from the state legislature, has had enough. It is cracking down on local governments that simply refuse to do their fair share in alleviating the state’s housing crisis.

One of the worst is Huntington Beach in (of course) Orange County, which not only has refused to abide by HCD’s legal mandate, but now threatens to sue it. It won’t win, but I couldn’t help noticing this from the report of the city’s press conference on the issue:

“Let the free market dictate what the demand is per city,” [Councilmember Casey] McKeon said. “Why is the government forcing housing down our throats? … We’re just fighting for our local control, as a charter city, especially. We’re going to fight for our residents and our constituents that elected us.”

Let the free market dictate? Has McKeon ever read a zoning code? Zoning code are the most anti-free market mechanisms out there. If you want the free market to decide, you would lift all land use controls, and if there are spillover effects just use nuisance actions (as indeed Robert Ellickson suggested nearly a half-century ago).

Lionel Trilling: Irritable Mental Gestures

This shows the collapse of right-wing NIMBY thinking (left-wing NIMBY thinking is flourishing based on a strange concoction of market hatred with precious few facts to back it up, but that’s another story). As Timothy Noah wrote in an excellent TNR piece out today, the Republican Party is basically out of ideas: at this point, it is simply, as Lionel Trilling famously remarked, a collection of “irritable mental gestures” – like appealing to the “free market” without realizing that that would get rid of zoning altogether.

I often tell my conservative students that if they really want to get rid of over-regulation, they shouldn’t attack EPA (which if anything is too timid): they should go after their local zoning board. But this is a kind of regulation that helps wealthier, paler people.

There is virtually no chance that Huntington Beach will win a lawsuit on this. It will argue that as a “charter city,” it has reserved home rule authority under the state constitution, and the state cannot pre-empt it. That would fly in the face of decades of precedent, and since this is a state issue, they can’t count on Sam Alito and Clarence Thomas to bail them out. There are genuine issues with states pre-empting local governments who pursuing innovative policy solutions, particularly in (of course) Texas and Florida, but this is a garden-variety effort of a city trying to block legislative action on a matter of statewide concern.

Tony Strickland: Sort Of A Maoist

I couldn’t help noticing that Huntington Beach’s mayor, who strongly backs Massive Resistance to affordable housing, is one Tony Strickland. Where have I heard that name before? Ah yes – he is a former right-wing state legislator from another part of the state, who when he lost his Congressional race, moved to Orange County to begin a new political career. Strickland left college, worked as a legislative staffer, then ran for office himself, won in a right-wing district, and when he wasn’t in office, run a political consulting firm. He’s basically never held a real job in the private sector that he extols so much. As Doonesbury’s Uncle Duke said of Chinese Communist leaders: “Marxists love the working class. That’s how they avoid belonging to it.” And current right-wing “thought” has about as much intellectual vibrancy as Maoism.

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Reader Comments

6 Replies to “You Want a Free Market? I’ll Show You a Free Market”

  1. I would like to hear your read on left-wing NIMBYism because, as you acknowledge, NIMBYism is a bipartisan issue. Liberals, conservatives and moderates are overwhelmingly NIMBY.

  2. This entire housing mandate is confounding. In a state that is destined by all measures to run out of water, it beggars the imagination why the governor is requiring more sprawl. I am not a NIMBY, and in fact I am an enviro attorney in favor of sensible solutions but shoving a one size fits all housing initiative across CA is plain terrible policy. In this instance, I do believe the market should rule.

    1. Not more sprawl outward: “in fill” housing in the form of Additional Dwelling Units (ADU), etc. on *existing* housing tracts.

  3. I don’t know who will win the legal battle, although I doubt it is as simple as you do.

    I have to say that the “free market” argument is not so clear. People choose to buy homes they can afford based in part on the pre-existing communal agreements about development, which is what a City zoning code represents.

    For the state legislature to smash these agreements on behalf of the Urban Growth Machine is imo extremely unethical, especially when they try to pretend they are doing it to help low income or BIPOC people.

    I will say though that many of them are probably not smart enough to know that they are in the wrong and that their measures will not help poor people. (I know a other few intelligent people who think as you do.) There is virtually no chance whatsoever that those people will be helped by *any* of this.

    I am very hopeful that the Our Neighborhood Voices initiative will qualify and pass by a landslide.

  4. Moreover, I think most tenured economists probably know that this whole line of argument is bogus, and they choose not to say anything because they don’t want to bite the hand. (The non-tenured keep silent likewise.)

    Here is one tiny actually substantive discussion I was able to find online. I look forward to seeing how you will dismiss it since this guy disagrees with you. ; ) That is, he thinks “affordability” won’t actually occur – he doesn’t think it bad in itself – nor do I! (from page 4):

    “”Using their estimates of the need for housing for both Californians and migrants attracted by the California life- style and more affordable housing, we find that to obtain a modest 10% reduction in price requires a little over 20% more housing. In Los Angeles County there are currently 3.5M housing units. This means rolling back to 2014 price levels requires 1.28 million new units. Some of that will support people doubling up who will now move to newly available units and some to support new residents. The City and State affordable housing initiatives will contribute only a small percent of that.

    Achieving anything close to this by the end of 2019, our forecast horizon, is pie-in-the-sky. Indeed, even in a 10-year building program at 130,000 additional homes would be a challenge. Moreover, the new households will require utilities, water, transportation, and city services, and if the experience of the 1960s to the 1980s, the era of large migrations to California provide any guidance, that infrastructure will need to be funded, at least in the near term, with more taxes.
    The above analysis suggests that making housing af- fordable in California is difficult at best. “”

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About Jonathan

Jonathan Zasloff teaches Torts, Land Use, Environmental Law, Comparative Urban Planning Law, Legal History, and Public Policy Clinic – Land Use, the Environment and Loc…

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About Jonathan

Jonathan Zasloff teaches Torts, Land Use, Environmental Law, Comparative Urban Planning Law, Legal History, and Public Policy Clinic – Land Use, the Environment and Loc…

READ more

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