Byron Carson: Are Farmville housing rules a straitjacket?

Byron B. CarsonFarmville housing regulations like zoning ordinances and minimum lot requirements are not a good look. Such regulations benefit existing property owners as they limit the supply of homes and raise property values. At the same time, they raise the cost of building new units and moving into zoned areas, which can limit population growth, stifle communities, and reinforce segregation.

Housing regulations are not unique to Farmville, and the U.S. has a long history of using such regulations. As Richard Rothstein notes in The Color of Law, housing regulations explicitly separated white and black communities in the early 20th century, such that African Americans were prohibited from purchasing homes in areas zoned for whites. Courts eventually struck these rules down, but non-racial housing regulations, enforced by local governments, planning commissions, and housing boards, remain with similar effects.

Farmville is awash with these regulations. According to the currently listed zoning map from July 1, 2020 and the Farmville Code of ordinances, no housing of any kind is permitted in the “downtown commercial” area. This is only four or five blocks, but imagine how vibrant those four or five blocks could be with more residents.

For a town with a negative 0.5% population growth between 2020 and 2022 according to the Census Bureau, town leaders should revise and relax these restrictions. Even though home values increased by about 4% between June 2022 and June 2023, according to Zillow, they would likely be higher with more people. Moreover, these restrictions harm potential consumers and are especially onerous for relatively poor, minority populations.

Zoning regulations in “transitional commercial” areas compound the problem. This area mostly covers East Third St. between Macados and Sunchase Cinema and Main St. between Bandidos and Truist Bank. Townhouses are permitted, and other major housing units are granted only on a conditional basis. Such conditions add uncertainty to new building projects and can impose additional costs on developers and consumers. Most of the remaining town is designated as a low-density residential zone, which prohibits two-family units, multi-family units, and townhouses.

Farmville also imposes minimum lot-size and height requirements. For example, lots in low-density residential areas must have at least 14,000 square feet and buildings must be no taller than 35 feet. For reference, Google Maps shows that Green Front’s Building 9 off Main St. has an outline of about 15,000 square feet. It is not at all clear every Farmville resident in a low-density residential area must have lot sizes that are around the size of a Green Front warehouse.

Accessory dwellings like carriage houses or granny flats provide some relief as they are often cheaper than apartments or renting a home. But finding one of these units, like hunting unicorns, can be difficult in Farmville; you have to know someone who knows someone who knows a guy that might have a spare room to let, maybe for a couple weeks here and there. These units are allowed in medium- and high-density residential areas, but they are few and far between in low-density areas where they are conditionally permitted. Such rules indicate they are more costly to build and harder to find. For a couple years, then, I was one of the lucky ones as I rented an accessory dwelling in one of Farmville’s low-density zones. I also had help from colleagues and friends at Hampden-Sydney to provide a connection and reference to the main tenants. Many others who might want to live in Farmville are not as lucky.

In America’s Frozen Neighborhoods, legal scholar Robert Ellickson calls zoning ordinances that prioritize single-family, detached dwellings a “straitjacket” on urban life. While such measures are common throughout the U.S., Ellickson notes they become tighter as the years go on, which fosters stagnation rather than a prosperous community.

These regulations distort neighborhoods and deter economic and social development in nearly every city in which they are imposed. Farmville seems no different. To reverse such trends and build a growing Farmville, city leaders should revise and relax the city’s housing rules and cut the straitjacket.

BYRON CARSON is an Associate Professor of Economics and Business at Hampden-Sydney College. He teaches introductory economics, money and banking, urban economics, and health economics. He can be reached at bcarson@hsc.edu.

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