Nolan Gray’s “Arbitrary Lines” and How Restrictive Zoning Leads to Higher Housing Prices: A Book Review


November 24, 2022 8:02PM

It seems not a day goes by without new news stories of how housing is becoming ever more unaffordable, especially in Tennessee. And it’s not surprising. In 2020, Tennessee was the number one in-migration state for the first time according to U-Haul, with homes selling within 10 days on average in Nashville. And the growth hasn’t slowed down despite rising interest rates. In fact, Pricewaterhouse Coopers forecasted that the Middle Tennessee area would remain the number one real estate market in 2023.

But it’s not just would-be homeowners that are suffering, with rental rates up over 20 percent in one year, forcing many to leave their communities and move farther and farther from work in order to afford their homes. And many are starting to blame real estate investment trusts, or REITS for buying up the housing stock, even in more affordable suburbs.

But Nolan Gray’s new book Arbitrary Lines How Zoning Broke the American City and How to Fix It correctly places the blame pack where it belongs: on zoning policies that make it impossible to build the housing needed to create true affordable housing. A former city planner in New York City, Gray saw firsthand how the byzantine labyrinth of zoning rules, overlays, and restrictions made building more housing impossible and its implications.

What I found most enjoyable about the book was regardless of your existing knowledge of zoning and housing policy, from an urban planner to no background at all, Gray was informative and yet engaging, taking you on a journey from how cities worked prior to zoning, how zoning came about, and the brass tax of how it works. But he’s also not afraid to mince words pointing out how zoning isn’t a good government policy gone bad due to unintended consequences, but how zoning “is a mechanism of exclusion designed to inflate property values, slow the pace of new development, segregate cities by race and class, and enshrine the detached single-family house as the exclusive urban ideal and always has been” (pg. 30). He also doesn’t shy away from zoning’s infamous past, in the introduction pointing out how “few American cities recognize that their zoning codes were drafted with the express intention of instituting strict racial and economic segregation” even calling zoning “the most successful segregation mechanism ever devised” (pg.4).

Regardless of its past, even if someone believes single-family zoning should be the ideal today, Gray makes a compelling case for how zoning has robbed America of untold economic prosperity. He highlights studies that have shown how restrictive zoning requirements have created urban sprawl and longer communities, increased traffic, lowered productivity, and lead to job relocations not based on opportunities but on housing costs. These consequences have robbed Americans of about $1.6 trillion in wages per year and how if simply three cities reformed their zoning codes, the average American’s income would rise eight percent, a nice pay raise in a time of high inflation (pg. 76).

While Gray calls for the elimination of zoning altogether, highlighting the success of Houston as the “Unzoned City” he provides a litany of reforms from reforming lot size requirements, protecting Accessory Dwelling Units (ie: granny flats), and eliminating parking minimums that would make it easier and cheaper to build new homes, effectively bringing down housing prices and protecting property rights.

Even if you disagree with Gray’s conclusion of eliminating zoning altogether, I can’t recommend Arbitrary Lines enough. Rarely does a book so entertainingly give you the whole back story of a policy issue that you may not be fully aware of one that is rarely front and center yet influences so much of our lives. If nothing else, it makes it clear what the true problem is and how we got here.