How Zoning Laws Hurt the Poor

A month ago I participated in the my schools speech contest, so I decided to give a speech about how zoning regulations disproportionately affect the poor:

I love America.  I love the fact that ideas founded this great nation. Ideas that uphold our infinite worth. Ideas that uphold our individual freedom. Ideas that uphold that  all of us, regardless of our circumstances, can achieve anything if we set our minds to it.You can invent time travel. You can be the next President. You can go to the NBA. Nothing obstructs your path to success. The sky’s the limit, and anything your heart desires is at your will. Except, when you are a poor, trapped in an impoverished neighborhood plagued with a famine of job opportunities and poor education. Poor education means poor jobs. Poor jobs means poor pay. Poor pay means never-ending entrapment in a cycle of poverty that will pass down from generation, to generation, to generation. That doesn’t sound like an American Dream, that is an American nightmare.

Well why don’t they move? After all, doesn’t our existence here revolve around our ancestors pursuit of a better life or escape of  turmoil? All true, but in order for the poor or the working class to move, they must have a place to move to. Today, home ownership is at an all time low, particularly in urban areas, because of the scarce housing supply. Less housing availability means prices go up. Prices go up and the poor can’t afford to move to those urban areas with better education and better jobs. All of these consequences are byproducts of the insurmountable land use restrictions implemented across the nation. They regulate the size of a building and the height of a building and the use of the building. So essentially, these laws state: “you are entitled to your right to property, just don’t do this, this, this or that” These restrictions inhibit developers from addressing the demand for affordable housing in urban areas, thus giving preference to the rich homeowners, and indifference to the poor.

California today  faces a housing crisis. Let me repeat that: California, the 3rd largest state in this vast nation, with a larger economy than France is running out of houses. In Palo Alto, if you earn less than 250K, which is five times the national average, you qualify for housing assistance. In LA or San Francisco, a typical house costs over 8 times the median income. California’s restrictive land use policies correlates with its excessive housing costs. Its excessive housing costs correlates with its excessive poverty rate that leads the nation. George Lucas wanted to provided 224 affordable housing units in  Marin County, San Francisco that would give many families access to quality education and jobs, yet the righteous  homeowners of Marin County wouldn’t have it, to the point that they created the Marin County Alliance to preserve the character of their neighborhood. Yes, because giving poor families a shot at bettering their lives and transcending the economic ladder doesn’t improve but threatens the character of their neighborhood. In Fairfax County, they allow only 1-2 houses per acre, yet reserve thousands of acres not for schools, not for apartment buildings, not for police stations, but for parks, farmland, and and ever essential golf courses. In DC, the income of landlords soar at a disproportionate rate to the amount of apartment buildings, but poor tenants can’t move anywhere without greedy landlords taking advantage of them because of 100 year old height regulations that inhibit developers from addressing the demand for affordable apartment buildings.
Ladies and Gentlemen, we have a duty to ensure that one’s zip code doesn’t define one’s destiny. Choices do. And next year as many of us gain eligibility to vote, we have the choice to elect local officials who want to tear down these barriers give the disadvantaged a chance to bring change to  their lives and thus  bring the American Dream closer to our cities, our counties, and our country.

-Solu Obiorah

Pic Credit: Jason Pratt


  1. When you speak of Fairfax county, VA I assume, you must mean that Some Areas have a 1-2 house per acre limit. There are many areas of the county with considerably greater density. Used to live in one of those. Of course Dulles airport doesn’t count? How about the Tyson’ s corner area? Etc?

    You imply that no zoning regulations is the ideal. Take a look around at older cities, towns, and villages that originated long before the zoning concept appeared. Many, particularly in some area of New England, the mid-Atlantic, and Rust Belt midwest are hodge-podge messes where home values, and commercial building values, are plummeting or stagnant. Certainly economic downturn(s) are a major factor, But lack of zoning to begin with let these places accelerate their decline. Would you want your house to be between a local tavern on one side and a cattle slaughterhouse on the other? That’s the way it was in Chicago circa 1890-1910. No zoning. Unrestrained capitalism.

    • I didn’t imply that no zoning regulations were ideal. I said that excessive zoning regulations drive up prices of homes especially in urban areas, keeps the poor out.

  2. Well, if you want to look to a thriving American City with few if any zoning ordinances look to Houston, Texas. We basically have NOTHING, with the exception of a few rules on keeping Strip Clubs and pedophiles a certain number of feet from schools and churches. And it works fine. Heck, housing is plentiful and as demand changes, so does the construction to meet the demand.
    Indeed, I went to college at the university with the top rated geography and city-planning department in the nation at the time. The chair of the department had them studying Houston for it’s organic growth patterns which has imposed it’s own order with some very desirable results (and of course some not so desirable results, admittedly).

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