Carey grew up in Cleveland, a city that desperately needs better public schools and better prospects for the professional people who want to live in its historic neighborhoods--but who can't justify the risk. Starring in a recent video sponsored by a libertarian magazine, Carey helped depict Cleveland's government as a pack of buffoons who have strangled free enterprise. The show implied that if only Cleveland could be more like Houston, which has no zoning law, it would really become a city of attractive neighborhoods.
Trouble is, Carey is more skillful at matching prices on TV than at matching policies to marketplaces. Plenty of cities with rich zoning laws have also created great neighborhoods after periods of decline. It's too easy to blame zoning for a host of depressing problems.
Which is where Bill O'Reilly and John Stossel come into the story.
Here's how it happened. Last month, as part of his gig hosting a series on Reason.tv, Carey introduces a searing look at Cleveland's failures.
The program visits a feckless government-employed market manager, an aggravated (Latino) would-be entrepreneur and a frustrated yuppie (white) couple fed up with underperforming schools.
It then chronicles a saga in which Wal-Mart came to town: A Houstonian cheerleader named Dan Bellow boasted of how quickly developers could get projects in the ground.
The message: Cleveland's "22 different" zoning designations made revitalization impossible.
Stossel and O'Reilly took up the message on O'Reilly's show last month. (But you have to wait out a Prilosec ad before you see the video. Ironic? You tell me.)
Like most ideology, this all feels brilliantly clear and leaves out a lot of inconvenient details. For instance, it's access to well-paying jobs and low-permitting costs, not just the lack of zoning, that makes Houston hum.
A town I used to cover in upstate New York has no zoning: Its main claim to fame now is a cement plant while its comprehensively planned neighbor, Hudson, has become a weekend hangout for Cindy Crawford and other posh antiquers.
New York, Boston and San Francisco -- and even New Haven -- have complex zoning codes that preserve neighborhoods' look and feel. They also have neighborhood-led public debates that keep entrepreneurship, mixed-use and help for the needy in balance.
They're also more desirable places to live -- for people who want the best amenities and most exciting neighbors -- with housing prices that have historically performed strongly over time.
Houston's solution was right, in the most obvious ways, for Houston. But to say that zoning is dumb and leads only to stagnation is worse than a joke: It's an illusion.
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