City Unplanning

69 Pages Posted: 24 Jan 2012 Last revised: 23 May 2013

Date Written: January 23, 2012


Generations of scholarship on the political economy of land use have tried to explain a world in which tony suburbs use zoning to keep out development but big cities allow untrammeled growth because of the political influence of developers. But as demand to live in them has increased, many of the nation’s biggest cities have substantially limited development. Although developers remain important players in city politics, we have not seen enough growth in the housing supply in many cities to keep prices from skyrocketing. This Article seeks to explain this change with a story about big-city land use that places the legal regime governing land-use decisions at its center. In the absence of strong local political parties, land-use laws that set the voting procedure in local legislatures determine policy results between cycling preferences. Specifically, the Standard Zoning Enabling Act (SZEA) creates a peculiar procedure that privileges the intense preferences of local residents opposed to new building. Amendments to zoning maps are considered one-by-one, making deals across projects and neighborhoods difficult. Legislators may prefer to allow some building rather to stopping it everywhere, but are most concerned that their districts not bear the brunt of the negative externalities associated with new development. Absent deals that link zoning changes in different neighborhoods, all legislators will work to stop the zoning amendments that affect their districts. Without a strong party leadership to whip votes into line, the preferences of legislators about projects in their districts dominate and building is restricted everywhere. Further, the seriatim nature of local land-use procedure results in frequent downzonings, as big developers do not have an incentive to fight reductions in the ability of landowners to build incremental additions to the housing stock as of right. The cost of moving amendments through the land-use process means that small developers cannot overcome the burdens imposed by downzonings. The Article concludes by considering several forms of legislative process reform that mimic procedural changes Congress adopted in order to pass international trade treaties.

Keywords: affordability, agglomeration, BANANA, Bernard Siegan, Boston, CBAs, co-locating, community benefits, density, Edward Glaeser, Ellickson, Kaldor-Hicks, LULU, market depth, NIMBY, Nelson, nuisances, Pareto, Paul Krugman, public choice, regional, Robert Lucas, San Francisco, urbanism, William Fischel

JEL Classification: O18, O21, P11, R11, R12, R13, R14, R52, R58

Suggested Citation

Schleicher, David, City Unplanning (January 23, 2012). Yale Law Journal, Vol. 122, No. 7, pp. 1670-1737, May 2013, George Mason Law & Economics Research Paper No. 12-26, Available at SSRN: or

David Schleicher (Contact Author)

Yale University - Law School ( email )

P.O. Box 208215
New Haven, CT 06520-8215
United States


Do you have a job opening that you would like to promote on SSRN?

Paper statistics

Abstract Views
PlumX Metrics