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Eric Adams and "Zoning Budgets"

In his recent interview with Ezra Klein, Democratic nominee for Mayor of New York City Eric Adams said:

"We must all share the affordable housing crisis. And every community board should be given a number and told that you must come up with where you’re going to place your affordable housing in your community board. And if you don’t do it, then our planning board would come up with the plan to put affordable housing in the community. One solution must solve a multitude of problems."

This is pretty close to an idea Rick Hills and I offered in a series of papers, which we call the “Zoning Budget.” The central claim was that a city itself (or a higher level of government, which Chris Elmendorf notes is more effective) should set a target for housing growth. And then individual rezoning decisions should be held to (and judged against) that housing target.

Zoning budgets are meant to fight the crisis of slow housing growth in rich cities and metros like New York. (That there is such a crisis should not be doubted!) The crisis is partially caused by a politics in which every individual councilmember vetoes zoning changes in her district. The absence of competitive political parties inside local politics translates regularly into what Barry Weingast called “distributive politics” but what the rest of us call pork-barrel politics. In land use, this means “aldermanic privilege,” or the ability of individual councilmembers to stop new development. Even if all councilmembers and the Mayor want more housing, each district would prefer it is built elsewhere. The absence of competitive political parties means that it is hard to solve this particular prisoner’s dilemma. In land use, there is little difference between the power of Greenwich, CT and Greenwich Village in New York to stop new housing. Research shows that moves from city councils elected at-large to districted city councils build less housing

Zoning budgets attempt to solve the problem of aldermanic privilege and small growth. When setting the target, groups that don’t get involved in fights over geographically specific amendments would become important. Big employers and municipal unions both care very much about the broader housing supply – cheaper housing makes it easier to hire workers and more housing means more city employees. But a rezoning in a particular neighborhood does not have enough of an effect on the housing supply to get these groups involved. This leaves the field to neighborhood activists and “homevoters,” who are the most anti-growth parts of local politics. But a fight over how many units to have in total will activate these groups to get involved.

The central challenge is what Rick and I call “stickiness.” Why would setting a target matter? Why wouldn’t each neighborhood still reject new housing, ignoring the target. Laywers like us suggest legal tools to make it sticky – automatic systems of enforcement that influence later decisions (we called it a “budget” for a reason.) California’s complex system of housing targets traditionally had few teeth and therefore didn’t matter that much. But over the last few years, they’ve built a number of new rules to make it work better (and some groups that work tireless to enforce these housing elements.). Rick and I have proposed a whole bunch of ideas for how this might work inside a city. But it needs to be effective across the city lest it break down back into the prisoner’s dilemma and aldermanic privilege.

But legal tools are only one way. What Adams is effectively proposing is having the Mayor set a broader target for new housing and using his political influence to tell each community board and councilmember that they have to figure out where their share of it is going to go. If they fail to do so, he’s threatening to have the city do it. For this threat to be credible, he has to be able to ram his alternate plans through the council if the community board/councilmember refuses to play ball.

On (primary) election day, I argued that the promise of Adams is that he might be powerful enough to beat back the neighborhood NIMBYs and other intense policy demanders by building a powerful political machine. He’s now announced a clear intention to do so. The question remains whether he be able to pull it off. But the logic of his approach is clear and


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