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The Housing Market Is Absolutely Insane: How To Fix It

Article Table of Contents

I had a brief exchange with a good friend recently:

how to fix

The housing market is indeed insane. This problem that we’re both discussing is:

  • Unbelievable ($650,000 for a fixer upper)
  • Oppressive (“unjustly inflicting hardship and constraint, especially on a minority or other subordinate group”)
  • Evil
  • Fixable

It’s not certainly fixable, it’s not unavoidably fixable, but it’s fixable if a few things can be made to happen.

I can defend each of these assertions. High housing costs are responsible for crippling the growth of generations of people, forcing large numbers of people to homelessness, etc.

I’m not writing this article to convince you that there’s an actual crisis around housing costs. Like, today, this week, this month. It’s a crisis. If you don’t think there’s a crisis, I’d posit you are part of the problem, but like I said, I’m not writing to convince you there’s a crisis. It’s so obviously a crisis that, to people who see it accurately, they’d be annoyed how much they’d have to explain it to you.

Read [The Color of Law], [The Power Broker], [The High Cost of Free Parking], [Order Without Design], [Seeing Like A State], [Strong Towns], etc. I don’t have time today to educate you on why the way “housing gets built” is a catastrophic problem.

When you look at your monthly income, and look at the cost of housing, and imagine trying to buy and pay off a house in any sort of desirable area in America, and you see how fundamentally impossible it is for you to ever own a house free-and-clear, within a few years, you know there’s a problem.

Introduction/Overview #

We need to do a few things:

  1. Understand how pleasant cities have historically developed. (AKA “Is there any place-or-time when this seemed like a solved problem”)
  2. Understand how the current way of doing things makes things worse and not better
  3. Understand the actual changes required to fix these problems
  4. Work backwards from actual changes to the current world we live in

Get rid of things that harm us #

Euclidean design #

Fixes come from a range of directions. There are supply-side problems in housing, there are demand-side problems in housing. The entire financial infrastructure around homeownership is bananas.

Most of the modern legal regime governing housing, it’s acquisition, it’s payment, what you can do with it, is the regime created by racists with the explicit goal of keeping black people from being able to live in ‘nice neighborhoods’.

Zoning laws #

Most zoning laws (I say “most” because I’m SURE someone can find a single counterfactual) cause extreme harm.

They slow down the speed of experimentation/change, the raise the costs of change, and they lock out large groups of people from ever participating in the evolution/creation of their own cities

I touch on this here:

Euclidean zoning #

Euclidean Zoning is cancerous.

From that article:

Euclidean zoning has also:

Eliminate minimum-everything #

No more minimum lot sizes. No more minimum parking requirements.

Restrictions on minimum lot sizes, strict building codes, and other elements of Euclidean zoning have increased housing costs, limited new housing construction, worsened affordability issues, and increased the inequality divide in urban areas.

I’ll expand on this later. In general, minimum lot size laws were written to raise the cost of housing (and keep black people out of white neighborhoods). Do you need more evidence that the laws should be removed? If you’d like evidence of that assertion, I’m happy to provide it, assuming you’re acting in good faith.

Eliminate most building codes #

I want to live in a safe house. I also want to live in a place with shelter. If I have two options, which should I choose?

  • Option 1: Live in a place that doesn’t meet residential building code requirements
  • Option 2: Be homeless

Which would you have me choose? If you well actually… your way into option 1, you’re part of the problem. But that’s OK, I don’t actually need you to agree with me to fix the problem.

People start with “inadequate” housing, when they’re resource-constrained, and then they upgrade their environment as they can.

Please see the book: How Buildings Learn: What Happens After They’re Built

Eliminate zoning laws #

They were written by racists to keep black people out of neighborhoods. I feel dirty even having to explain this. The racists wrote that this was their goal when rolling out the institution of zoning. If you’re even partially honest in saying “that cannot be!!! I am not a racist!” just go read the original zoning plan

Zoning laws, in America, are horrific and cannot be “modified” to be anything but horrific. Eliminate them.

We could replace it with Japanese zoning laws which, while they still have problems, are dramatically less harmful than American racially-biased zoning laws.

Do things that help us #

So, after getting rid of bad stuff, we need to actually do lots of good things. reduce, reuse, recycle, better use of space, better use of money, provide more important things like jobs, shelter, food, transportation to the people who live in the city.

Hire people that actually understand how cities work, and let them provide expert guidance on how your city should work #

Go read Order Without Design, and internalize its message.

Cities are labor markets

Cities are about labor markets and economic activity. Stop artificially separating housing from commerce. I wish so hard that I could walk next door and grab a coffee and a block over and buy some groceries and another block over and hit up the local tiny climbing wall, and on my way back grab a beer and do some work in a coworking space.

Oh, right, I can’t, because 100 years ago, some asshole decided that people shouldn’t be allowed to open businesses from their house because that was what poor black people did and that asshole used laws to criminalize the way of life of poor people.

Josh, we need licensing and permitting because without it, ANARCHY!!!

This is pearl-clutching, and you’re wrong. So wrong that I cannot even bear to write two sentances explaining why licensing is horrible. Just go read stories about it, and ask yourself ‘how the hell did we ever get to such a bad place’

So, since cities are about labor, and licensing artificially restricts the barrier to provided services, and cities have generally criminalized living and working in the same spot of dirt, you can maybe see why cities have to throw away all the shitty laws they’ve got around licensing and “home occupations”. (That’s a pejorative term, and I’d love to never hear it again.)

Oh, and stop funding your police department. They’re a terrible solution to mostly a not-problem, and most of what they do is oppress minorities and perpetuate our uniquely american “criminalization of poverty” thing.

(I have problems with political authority. Mostly because it’s not real. There is no “political authority”. There’s three groups in the world:

  1. people who use “political authority” as justification to make threats of violence against others
  2. People who think political authority requires that they and others submit to the demands of group 1
  3. Everyone else

Obviously, group 1 is small and powerful. Group 2 is huge. Group 3 is rapidly growing.

Eliminate restrictions on commercial and residential activity in the same lot #

If I want to work and live in the same place, who the hell are you to tell me I cannot? This is how human societies have managed themselves for all of time.

Valid problems with these fixes #

There’s some problems with these fixes. I’m suggesting throwing away about a century of legislation that seems beyond the pale to many people.

The issue is that Euclidean zoning, is so ingrained it will be difficult for towns to change their entire structure.

It’s so engrained. How do towns fix this?

Honestly, towns need to do away with local governments. Just straight up end it. Stop paying your taxes. Stop going to city meetings. Stop submitting building plan propossals. Stop requesting permits. Just take your property and build on it.

So, what happens when all this oppressive, legal bullshit is stripped away?

We let “the market” sort itself. When the price for something is high, that attracts persons who try to solve it because there’s money to be made.

An aging couple might convert their garage to college housing. They might rent out a basement to a small family. With a little up-work, they’ll bring in an extra $2k/month, forever.

Incidentally, this solves the ‘social security is running out of money’ problem for any elderly person who lives in a desirable locale.

Now, there’s more people living in neighborhoods. OH NO! THE TRAFFIC!

JK, that won’t be a problem, because most people won’t drive nearly as much as they do when they live here:

They will live within a short walk of: - grocery stores - doctors' offices - restaurants - markets - a billion home-run businesses - parks - bookstores - and much more > JOSH! My neighborhood doesn't have all those things! This isn't true! Your neighborhood doesn't have those things _because they're illegal. Make them not-illegal, and you'll start seeing them crop up._ ## End America's embarrassing fetishization of alcohol Fetish, definition: - an excessive and irrational devotion or commitment to a particular thing - a form of sexual desire in which gratification is linked to an abnormal degree to a particular object, item of clothing, part of the body, etc - an inanimate object worshiped for its supposed magical powers or because it is considered to be inhabited by a spirit. All three of these apply to how America thinks about Alcohol, _and it's ruining our damn cities_. Wanna serve alcohol anywhere? oops, open drinking laws mean you have to have a fence between where your patrons sit, and "the public" might walk. Good job, you just criminalized collective shared seating between a number of small restaurants Want to open a coffee shop, but you realize most people don't drink coffee at 5p, so you want to augment your offerings with time-and-context-aware offerings? Too bad, liquor licenses are expensive AF, and require letting the city be rather intimate with every one of your dealings, so you cannot just hit the local liquor store, buy a few boxes of wine, and start "selling wine". Want to open a restaurant, but you're from Spain, and you grew up drinking wine at lunch? Too bad. In America, you're a criminal and will be treated as such. ## The Positive OK, so, I've ranted and railed about "bad things that need to go away", but that doesn't help with how to promote more good things? Here's that list. We need to stop building in bad ways and start building in good ways. "We" is _not_ inclusive of "people who have historically built things". I'd love to see teenagers, college-age adults, and anyone under 30 getting into building buildings and mobility infrastructure. This is why licensing and credentialing is so damn harmful. If you want to _build_ anything in America you need to go through a decade of useless schooling and gatekeeping to get permission to do something, at which point your independence has been beaten out of you, and by the time you're done, you're likely depressed, overweight, and old. Not exactly a great spot to start "changing the world". - [Patterns of Home] - [A Pattern Language] - [How Buildings Learn] - [Best Practices Dutch Cycling - 5. Bicycle Streets]( - [Order Without Design]() # How to actually accomplish all of this I'm not going to suggest any books about cities, when it comes to transforming out cities and ending the systemic racism that our modern legal regime perpetuates. Here's some dangerous books that will help paint a path out: - [The Problem of Political Authority: An Examination of the Right to Coerce and the Duty to Obey]( - [Police Union Power, Politics, and Confrontation in the 21st Century: New Challenges, New Issues]( - [The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York]( - [Rules for Radicals: A Pragmatic Primer for Realistic Radicals]( ### Further Reading - []() ### Footnotes