Re: Government & Public Safety [was Re: kathryn's comments]

Elizabeth Childs (
Sat, 11 Sep 1999 15:27:13 -0700

From: Robert J. Bradbury <>

> > I usually come at it from a utilitarian approach, and explain how
> > is raising the price of health care, making it harder to buy a house,
> -----------------------------------------------------------------
> > screwing up education, keeping the poor from getting jobs, etc.
> Elizabeth, could you elaborate on the rationale for the underlined items
> a bit when you have the opportunity?

Making it harder to buy a house: local zoning laws severly restrict who can build, how much they can build, and what they can build. Thus, far fewer houses are built in the first place, and with the reduced supply comes higher prices. Great for those who happen to own a home already, rough on those who don't. In Berkeley, the housing situation is in constant crisis, but fewer than thirty apartments are built every year, if my reading of the local paper is correct. In Marin county, the situation is similar.

I am not very knowledgeable about local building codes, but I have talked to a few architects about this issue, and it's my understanding that once they have permission to build, they have to comply with an enormous morass of codes about the building itself. This stifles innovation in design and in the use of materials. If, for example, it was mandated that all houses must have at least one bathroom on the first floor, that means that no one can ever build a house on stilts, even in a swamp. Even when building perfectly conventional houses, they have to spend countless (expensive) hours just making sure their design complies.

I theorize that this is why old houses, like the beautiful 19th century Victorians we have here in Oakland, are so much nicer than even luxury homes today. The old homes were built when architects had more of a free hand, and thus they could design an optimal local solution to a local problem; now, the building codes have predetermined an "optimal" solution to all problems.

I theorize also that this is why people throw up those hideously ugly tract homes that all look alike. I'm glad those homes are there; they give people an opportunity to live in a home who might otherwise not be able to afford one. But using the same design over and over again means that they've already come up with a single solution that meets all the codes. That's an expensive problem to solve, and it's been solved. Of course, there are probably other efficiencies there as well; construction workers are probably most familiar building the standard types of house, and that must make them cheaper to build as welll.

There is a genuine value to living in a place with a lower population density, and that's why people campaign against allowing construction. I also understand that people want to have some control over the appearance of their neighborhood, and that's part of the motive for local building codes. Also, of course, we all want to live in a home that's safe and well constructed. But I think there are trade-offs with each of these values, and one of them is to bump up the price of homes substantially. I also think that there are more efficient solutions.

Price of health care I will tackle later, and if I'm feeling really ambitious, maybe I'll take a crack at "more efficient solutions".