Egregious Zoning Laws

I've expressed my dislike for zoning laws in the past. Like other urbanists, my biggest objection is that zoning segregates residential homes from retail and office space and makes it arbitrarily difficult for people to get from the places they live to the places they want and need to go.

Now, right in my backyard, a new zoning debate is brewing; a debate over a type of zoning perhaps even worse than the worst type of Euclidean zoning.

The short version of the story is that John Carroll University owns four apartment buildings directly adjacent to its campus, but which sit in the city limits of Shaker Heights (the rest of the campus is in University Heights). The mayor of Shaker Heights wants a zoning law that would (among other things) cap the number of students allowed to live in each university-owned apartment building (hypothetically, at something like 50% or 75% of total occupancy, although I don't think official numbers have been released).

I'm not even going to try to defend college students as good neighbors. Yes, they can be immature and obnoxious and loud and stay up all night. Yes, they are highly transient and many don't live in the same place for more than a few months at a time. But the question of good neighbor/bad neighbor is a judgment call as is. Plus, this is a really a question of practicality.

Having apartment units on or very close to the JCU campus means that the students in those buildings will walk to and from class, the library, the gym, and whatever else they might be doing on campus. It means fewer awful surface parking spaces will need to be allocated on for commuters, and it means an overall more-connected and better-integrated campus.

The reality is that students have to live somewhere. Shaker Heights seems to be betting on the outcome that if they can "zone" students out of the most convenient apartment buildings, that they will disperse throughout University Heights, Cleveland Heights, South Euclid and other surrounding suburbs. That might be a decent outcome for NIMBYs trying to rid their suburb of college students, but its really bad for everyone else.

Herein lies the broad problem with zoning... it allows local governments to essentially hand pick what kind of activity is allowed to take place on privately owned property, and local governments often aren't very good at it. Euclidean zoning laws say people can't live in an apartment on top of a grocery story, so people have to travel long distances to get to one. Remember, an arrangement like the one in the photo below is against the law in many places across America; the answer to why is more about politics than about practicality.

(from flickr user M.V. Jantzen)

Similarly, Shaker Heights wants to restrict students from living near campus, so the alternative will be for them to travel a longer distances to get to it. I'm not defending the market as perfect in every instance, but in this case, excessive government regulation is not good.

Lastly, I honestly believe that this type of zoning borders on the unconstitutional. I am not a lawyer and may be missing something glaringly obvious, but it seems to be one thing for government say that a residential home can't be used as a factory, or to prohbit people from living in a restaurant. It's entirely another to say that a specific demographic group cannot occupy more than a pre-determined number of apartment units, even if they are able and willing to pay.


    As a Houstonian, I'm a big fan of no-zoning. Sure, sometimes there are things that aren't really that great because of the lack of zoning laws, but a majority of the time, the invisible hand creates mixed-used communities that would make Jane Jacobs proud.


    Glad you asked. I'm taking planning law this semester. Look up this case and you'll have your answer:

    George Washington University vs. The District of Columbia.