The NIMBY 5th Column: Planners in Local Government
At this point in my career I have learned, implemented, and written sections of a number of zoning codes in a few different jurisdictions. When I started out at the bottom, I assumed that the rules of zoning must stem from some logical basis or reasoning, after a few years it became pretty clear that most of it is based off of:
what a few people complained about loudly
what was simplest to measure
what was easiest to implement
what was politically palatable among the public and the department
Planners sitting at the code drafting table can often be one of the first obstacles to legitimate progress. Why does this happen? I argue below that it is probably due to economic interests, although others have suggested it has something to do with preserving professional relevance. In any case, watching this happen in real time is a fascinating process, and recently I experienced this again while working on a mixed-use project.
How Zoning Gets Updated
My team had been tasked with updating an existing high-flexibility mixed-use residential zone—let’s call it MUR-1. MUR-1 was intended to facilitate the type of 4-5 story development you might see in a place like Portland or Seattle, but for nearly 10 years no one ever wanted to use it. Most developers in the project area preferred a similar high-flexibility commercial zone—let’s call it C-1-- because it provided basically all the same allowances plus there was more existing land zoned under this designation available. Rezoning in that jurisdiction can cost thousands of dollars, so there was very little incentive to convert from MUR-1 to C-1 as you would lose cost and flexibility. When I joined the project, the existing MUR-1 code proposal allowed for some height increases and expanded uses, but at the cost of many more complicated stipulations related to conditional set-backs, sunlight requirements, floor area limitations, and an extensive web of “bonuses” for which developers could “win” more rights by providing amenities the planners had decided were important. It also had a number of "pedestrian oriented design" standards, as if a building can change the conditions that make walking more or less attractive.
The direction from my boss had been to simplify the code, so with their blessing I removed as much of this junk as I could. Most "bonuses" in planning are about pretext, structuring a code this way looks attractive at first but fundamentally erodes public faith in the system and in practice really isn't that effective (from talking to developers and planners in the area it seemed like almost no one ever used these “bonuses” anyway). Bonuses/allowances/horsetrading for less height/parking like this has always made me wonder: If you allow more height or less parking in exchange for income-restricted units, sidewalk amenities, or whatever else, it means the parking or height wasn’t really a problem. So why not just allow it by right? The answer is of course because planners are trying to preserve negotiating power, but that, again, is a whole other discussion.
The MUR-1 project came to a close and we were ready for final review and publishing. Right before we published, the biggest pushback I got came not from the public, managers, or director, but rather from my fellow planners, speaking fervently for “protecting” lower density zones “maintaining residential character” and “preserving” areas for the “right amount” of density. This is the familiar language of NIMBY obstructionism. These planners are tasked with implementing the comprehensive plan’s vision for an urban city, and allowing more flexibility throughout. Why would they be the ones trying to retard reforms at the last minute? And how many times have other old-school planners in other cities done the exact same thing and gotten their way, thus reducing real opportunities for change?
In my experience, the most durable explanations of human behavior are those which focus on material interests. From that starting point, I presume that the fundamental reason that planners might delay or reduce zoning reform in the conceptual stage is because most of them (especially older ones) are single family home owners who are personally invested in the low density status quo. When single family housing is understood as an asset class, complaints about “neighborhood character” are really primarily concerns about property value, and zoning's primary function is form of value insurance (the homevoter hypothesis). Yes people do care about how their neighborhoods look and feel, but most zoning regulation has primarily been less about aesthetics than exclusion based on race or class. Huge numbers of urban planners are probably homeowners first, and urban planners second, and this means that at the end of the day, a lot of them have the same interest in preserving the economic status quo as the NIMBYs that make the most noise. Only they can block reform before it ever gets out of the concept stage.
I couldn't find American Planning Association data on housing tenure, but perhaps we can look at incomes as a proxy measure. According to the APA’s 2018 survey results, The median salary of a public planner is around $76,000:
Older AICP planners (who probably have more veto power/management control over zoning projects at work) tend to make around $100,000:
Census data suggests that at this income level, most households are homeowners (and this assumes a single income. A household with two working adults will be even higher income and thus even more likely to be a homeowner). Here’s what census data (Source is table S2503, 2019 1-year estimates) says about household incomes and homeownership:
Number of Owner-Occupied Households
Owner Occupied Units as a Percentage of All Occupied Units at this Income Level
Households making 50-100K
Households making 100-150K
Households making 150K+
This data suggests to me that if a public planner makes the median salary, it's probably fair to assume they’re a homeowner. If they’ve been in the game for a long time and are AICP, they’re probably even more likely to be a homeowner. This is not necessarily bad, but in code-reform situations could be a bit like having shareholders write the regulations for the corporations they hold stock in. Are those shareholders likely to craft/approve rules which might change the value of their investment? Are they likely to make any changes that fundamentally change the structure of their investment strategy?
A Problem of Disclosure
My fundamental conclusion here is that planners who are homeowners have a vested interest in the status quo, this probably influences how they think about designing, implementing, or amending zoning. This has probably delayed all sorts of zoning reform all across the country for years, and most of it stuff we'll never even know about. Someone proposes eliminating setbacks, the elder planner says no they need to maintain them to "protect neighborhood character", the proposal is whittled down before it even goes before the planning commission.
This isn’t really a novel observation, but I don’t see it mentioned very often and it seems important to recognize when we wonder why so many cities keep struggling with high housing costs and all of the subsequent problems. Planners with a financial stake in suburbia should not be shaping and limiting the land use laws for urban areas, at least not without some sort of disclosure about where they might have a conflict of interest. I have never seen this in planning and maybe I never will, probably because planners don't really carry any legal liability for what they do and so there is no need for these protections.
The header image on this page comes from a planner in Oregon who submitted public testimony against HB2001, the ground-breaking legislation of 2019 that essentially legalized fourplexes in every city in the state. This bill was a huge deal, not only did it reshape the discussion of housing but also broke the stranglehold of single-family zoning statewide, permanently. Supporting this bill should have been a no-brainer for all urban-minded professionals, especially those who subscribe to APA's AICP credentialing system. However, the letter is proof that AICP/APA don't really mean anything when it comes to good planning or ethics, especially if this "certification" can be displayed while publicly opposing half of the things it ostensibly stands for.
I have looked up this person’s property record, and I can tell you that the single family home they live in was purchased for $45,000 in 1987 and is now worth somewhere around $620,000—an increase of over 1300%, or about 8% appreciation every year. This is comparable to stock market returns over the same period. 8% isn't an insane return, but it is definitely something worth protecting--especially if the owner doesn't have many other streams of income or some other means for economic stability. Planners get paid well-enough, but are still subject to the same national-level policies which herd people into homeownership as the best-option gamble for retirement security. This is not likely to change soon, or ever. But at least planners (or its professional organization) could be clearer about how their own material interests might impact professional judgement or abilities.