There’s an archetypal American story that says a lot about who we are: an upstart entrepreneur, whether out of desperation or raw ambition, turns a great idea, elbow grease, and an empty garage into a thriving business. Like all mythologies, this story has its basis in reality.
While the humble home-based business holds enormous power in the American psyche, you wouldn’t know this by looking at any given city’s zoning ordinances. As we discover in a forthcoming paper for the American Planning Association’s Economic Development Division, many zoning ordinances continue to regulate home-based businesses to such an extent that entrepreneurs are practically required to keep their business under-the-table. This leaves many home-based businesses in the quasi-legal gray market, at the whim of code enforcers, unable to operate openly, scale up, and become the next Harley Davidson, Disney, or Yankee Candle.
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Cities and suburbs are getting clobbered by the collapse of the retail sector. But there are ways to use the crisis as a way to speed long-overdue land use reforms.
The proliferation of half-vacant shopping centers and abandoned malls on the fringes of cities has become such a pervasive problem that we have a new word for it: greyfields. Chances are you have a few in your community: acres of paved parking with weeds creeping through the cracks and a dilapidated big-box structure standing in the middle. They’re the increasingly hard-to-ignore manifestation of what’s often described as the retail meltdown. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the retail sector lost approximately 30,000 jobs in March alone, with thousands of store closings projected through 2017. At this pace, store closings in 2017 are likely to surpass the Great Recession year of 2008.
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On March 2, after a month of unexpected delays, the Senate confirmed Ben Carson’s nomination to Secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development in a party-line 58-41 vote. The lightly contested vote followed unanimous confirmation in committee, as Senate Democrats signaled that Carson’s nomination simply isn’t the hill they are willing to die on. With Carson now in the driver’s seat at HUD, what in the world could the soft-spoken neurosurgeon mean for U.S. cities?
As many have pointed out, Carson’s hearing testimony was vague, and his background in housing policy is sparse. Yet in Carson’s prepared testimony and at recent events, he has consistently stressed the problem of housing affordability and the need for land-use liberalization at the local level. In this regard, Ben Carson joins a cross-ideological, bipartisan consensus ranging from the progressive left to the conservative right on the urgent need for land use reform and new development in America’s cities. While HUD’s power over local land use regulation and housing is limited, here are three low-cost reforms HUD could pursue under Carson.
First, Carson could direct HUD officials to craft and disseminate model zoning reform legislation to the states. As urban history geeks may know, conventional “Euclidian” zoning began in 1924, when a committee of planning proponents drafted the Standard Zoning Enabling Act. The act provided state policymakers with readymade zoning legislation, and within a decade, most states had adopted some form of the legislation, and thousands of cities had adopted zoning ordinances.
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