Good Riddance Single House Zoning

Brendon Harre
4 min readDec 14, 2021

“The American real-estate industry believed segregation to be a moral principle. As late as 1950, the National Association of Real Estate Boards’ code of ethics warned that “a Realtor should never be instrumental in introducing into a neighborhood … any race or nationality, or any individuals whose presence will clearly be detrimental to property values.”

Single house zoning charts its history back to the early 1900’s in the United States when private covenants and local government zoning had the purpose of excluding people by race and income. Source from Racial Restrictive Covenants compiled by The Seattle Civil Rights and Labor History Project

Going into Christmas a surprise gift to the nation has been legislation that enables a more permissive built environment. Even more surprising this legislation was a bipartisan housing accord between Labour and National. This consensus approach means permissive urban environments will be enduring— it prevents policy reversals like the US has experienced with housing.

The most important effect of the housing legislation will be the ending of single house zoning over New Zealand’s largest urban areas. The Bill’s legislative architect was David Parker the Minister of the Environment. For National the bipartisan accord was lead by Deputy Leader Nicola Willis. Their Final Reading speeches from the Bill can be viewed here and here. National’s Erica Stanford also gave a speech that was well grounded in the difficulties that the housing crisis presents.

Most of the above rules will be implemented by local government by August 2022. Source

From first being publicly announced to the legislation being made law has taken less than two months. Going forward building three-stories and three dwellings without consent will be a minimum right in New Zealand’s largest and fastest growing cities.

For Judith Collins this announcement did not save her job as the leader of the opposition. But for my part at least, I will remember she had the best response, when asked what reduced regulation means — will a community lose its character? Judith responded with “our communities lose their character when people can’t afford to own their own home.”

Segregating cities into different zones has always been a bad idea. Other than excluding a few nuisances — the noisy factory, the smelly abattoir — the idea has little merit. Regulation that artificially forces down density is as bad as those places that have artificially high density.

Source

Zoning is bad for the environment because it unnecessarily separates activities and people which increases the pollution and congestion cost of city-travel.

Zoning is bad for productivity because it makes it harder for businesses, workers and customers to access each other.

And zoning is bad for inequality because it prevents poorer people from pooling their resources in the form of multi-unit dwellings so they can live in accessible urban locations that have better opportunities.

Zoning is like a monopoly — for society as a whole it is bad, but for the individuals that benefit it is good — meaning there are powerful interests for creating and maintaining them.

The Coalition for More Homes (CFMH) proposal for an alternative medium density residential standard (MDRS).

I could complain about some aspects of the medium density residential standards that the Bill enables and the way the government has talked about housing more generally.

  • The government could have been more strategic about improving the built environment by encouraging better urban forms rather than the increased permissiveness being focused on sausage flat type developments.
  • Mixed-use commercial activity could have been made ‘as of right’ by legislation too.
  • The Bill gives a right to build that favours fewer larger dwellings (up to three). The same built envelope cannot ‘by right’ be divided into a greater number of smaller dwellings. A right to build low-rise apartments would further help less well-off households access city-locations that have better opportunities.
  • The Bill could have applied to more urban areas — not just the Tier-1 cities — Auckland, Hamilton, Tauranga, Wellington and Christchurch.
  • The prime minister could talk more about the right to build for those without access to decent housing, rather than voicing concern about property values for those with housing. This type of talk is too close to the pre-1950s American Realtor speak for my liking. But she does seem to be walking back some of her statements about sustainable house price growth — more of this would be welcomed.

These details and without a doubt many more bring into question implementation and competence — a very contentious issue. Yet over time details can be improved.

The big picture importance of the latest housing legislation is at the highest political level there is consensus for the planning system becoming more permissive and less segregating. Exclusion in the DNA of our built-environment is now considered to be morally wrong — permissiveness is being hardwired into the system. This is a gift worth celebrating. I gratefully receive it and hope for more such gifts in the future.

Postscript:

A good Christmas gift that explains America’s history of using its planning and financial systems for racist segregating purposes is The Color of Law — A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America by Richard Rothstein.

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Brendon Harre

When cities make it harder to build houses is that because landowners have lobbied lawmakers so they can earn without toil?