13 Apr 2011

Government By Regulation and Waiver

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Richard Epstein, in a very important paper published in the Spring issue of National Affairs, discusses the many ways in which the modern administrative state has by-passed a uniform rule of law in favor of permitting regulatory bodies to negotiate a variety of terms and concessions in areas affecting broadcast licensing, labor relations, prescription drug licensing, health care, and so on.

Epstein cites, as a particularly striking example, the kind of negotiations which have become customary in the case of building permits.

These days, to begin any new building project, every developer must obtain a sheaf of permits that go far beyond the relatively mundane functions of avoiding falling bricks or aligning curb cuts to secure entryways for indoor parking. Indeed, today’s new norm calls for exhaustive hearings before planning commissions and community boards; these investigations are intended to probe the size of a project, its exterior design, the number and type of apartment units, access for the disabled, the amount of affordable housing (with complex subsidies from both the government and the developer), project financing (with government guarantees), proper hiring practices (with appropriate set-asides for women and minority workers), and multiple inspections for just about everything.

Yet just as all these requirements can be imposed, they can also be waived. The waivers, though, often come at a price — or, more accurately, a land-use exaction. For instance, a cash-strapped local government may be willing to waive the requirement that a developer set aside a certain percentage of apartment units to rent at below-market rates to the poor. The catch, however, is that the developer must agree to provide funding to build or refurbish a public school, a public park, or a nearby train station. The developer almost inevitably yields to the exaction, because he knows that, if he does not, he faces prolonged resistance and constrictive red tape from the government — obstacles that could eventually sink his project. But the requests for exactions may come from many varied groups with different expectations and demands. Parents may want a new school or park, commuters may want a new train station, cyclists may want new bike lanes, the arts community a new public performance space, homeless advocates a new shelter, and so on. It may not be possible for the government or the developer to satisfy all of the groups simultaneously — and the attempt to do so can tie up development for years, or cause projects to be scrapped altogether. This phenomenon drives up the number of project failures, which in turn shrinks the supply of housing, which then drives up housing costs and puts even greater pressure on both the developers and the regulators.

Read the whole thing.

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SDD

There is nothing so enticing as the notion that the only thing standing between you and a Free Lunch is government creativity.



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