The Insidious Effects of Minimum Lot Sizes
Mandated minimum lot sizes use government power to isolate the poor, create traffic congestion, worsen urban sprawl, and make housing less affordable.
by Jerome F. Winzig
The use of government power to benefit private interests at the expense of the common good is a serious problem in modern democracies. The problem is insidious because those private interests are often well-concealed behind misleading rhetoric and seemingly well-intentioned policies. Such is the case with suburban minimum lot size requirements, which are often enacted in the name of preventing urban sprawl.
A bewildering network of private foundations and public agencies are often behind these efforts. For example, the web site for an entity called the Center of Excellence for Sustainable Development -- a project of the U.S. Department of Energy (no kidding!) -- boasts that minimum lot sizes of 20 to 320 acres have protected millions of acres of farm land from development. At a time when the economically-viable size of farms is rapidly increasing, the web site claims its minimum lot sizes "ensure farms large enough to support commercial agriculture."
Most city homeowners would be astonished by the minimum lot sizes mandated by many suburban governments. In the Minneapolis/St. Paul metropolitan area, one of the least-dense population centers in the country, minimum lot sizes of 2.5 acres for single-family homes are not uncommon in the suburbs. Since most city dwellers measure their lots in feet rather than acres, a little conversion is in order.
In our immediate middle-class neighborhood lots typically measure 125 feet by 50 feet, for a total of 6,250 square feet. Just a few blocks away, and in much of the city, lots are 40 feet wide or less, which yields lots of 5,000 square feet or less. Some more well-to-do neighborhoods have lot widths of 60 feet, providing their owners with 7,500 square feet. By comparison, a 2-1/2 acre lot contains 108,900 square feet. In other words, many of the suburbs around Minneapolis and St. Paul require developers and new homeowners to build just one home on lots that would accommodate 14 to 21 homes or duplexes in the city of Minneapolis or St. Paul.
Last December, an interesting variance came before the city of Woodbury, an eastern suburb of St. Paul. A Lutheran church asked for a variance to create a ten-acre lot (instead of the required 20-acre minimum). Incredibly, the church needed government permission to build on a lot that is "only" 87 times the size of our own neighborhood's Lutheran church property.
There are some who go to strange lengths to justify such government-mandated land waste. Sunday's Minneapolis Star Tribune quotes Patricia Awada, the mayor of suburban Eagan, as saying, "Suburban and rural people value freedom more and local control. We like our yards. We want a private yard on a cul-de-sac. We want our kids safe from crime." Except for the cul-de-sac, these values are also cherished by city dwellers.
Government-mandated minimum lot requirements have costs that are not born by the suburbs that institute them. They create urban sprawl. They drive up housing costs. They foster traffic congestion. They make public transportation almost impossible. They confine poor people to the cities and a handful of suburbs, thereby making racial segregation worse in America. They make many jobs inaccessible for people who depend on public transportation. Today, over 60 percent of jobs in the Minneapolis/St. Paul metropolitan area are located in the increasingly far-flung suburbs, up from 25 percent in 1970. In other words, they make those values named by Mayor Awada harder to achieve in the city.
John Powell, who heads the University of Minnesota's Institute on Race and Poverty, was just featured in the latest University of Minnesota alumni magazine in a piece entitled, "On Race and Space." According to Powell, "the overlying issue is fragmentation, the splintering of a metropolitan issue into jurisdictions and distinct neighborhoods that some people can move into and other people cannot. The outward aspect of this movement seems at first glance like the natural result of free movement. But there is nothing natural about sprawl."
It is unnatural because it is mandated by local governments through zoning ordinances, which themselves are a recent phenomenon. As Powell points out, there was no zoning in the United States until the 1920s. Now that it is being used to legislate minimum lot sizes, we wonder why there is a shortage of affordable housing.