By Evelyn Pyburn

Billings representative, Katie Zolnikov has introduced House Bill 337, which would prohibit local governments from requiring minimum residential lot sizes. Zolnikov’s aim is to open the door to the development of more affordable housing.

Such legislation would be unnecessary if private property rights were adhered to by a power-crazed bureaucracy.

The fact is about half the legislation we see would be unnecessary if private property rights were adhered to by both governments and citizens. If only “leaders” would trust to the market when it comes to determining what consumers or homeowners want!

The decline in respect for private property is an ominous trend, since liberty depends upon individuals being able to own and use property. Government in the US was intended to own only a scant necessity of property as needed to facilitate what it was supposed to do, and infringing upon private property required compensation.

Property owners should be compensated because the USE of property is its value. When you purchase property you are really purchasing the right to determine how to use it. The more you can do with a parcel, the greater its demand and the greater its value. When you rent it the renter purchases a portion of the right to use it in a specific way for a specific time. When city hall, the county, state or federal government usurp part of your ability to use it, there is a takings (theft) and the owner should be compensated for the loss.

Of course, such a system would greatly diminish the eagerness of bureaucrats to dictate how private individuals may use their property.

Years ago as planners and czars were ratcheting up their power over how people could build homes, ostensibly for “health and safety”, there were those who warned that this day would come – the  day, when the market would not function and there would not be enough housing, and what there would be would be inordinately expensive.

Back then – in the ‘70s —  I was told that they needed  to control the size of residential lots because they had done studies on rats and determined that when rats lived in crowded conditions, rats died. They didn’t want us all dying like rats, they said. Really! this is true! It was what a somber, sober and ostensibly wise bureaucrat told me.

Of course that was the policy that created urban sprawl, which today the autocrats hate and are dedicated to eradicating with the implementation of a different set of coercive regulations telling people what to do with their property. The point is, of course, that while they assert that they have all the answers, even their own history says they do not.

There is nothing wrong within our economy regarding housing that a free market wouldn’t take care of so rapidly that market glitches would be corrected before we even noticed them. That the housing market is so crippled screams to the high heavens that housing is not functioning in a free market. Any time there are market distortions, look closely, it is always because of government controls.

Believe it or not there was a time when people built homes with no government oversight – many of those homes are the beautiful homes in historic districts that everyone now wants to save and  which usually hold premium prices even though they are a century old. How is that possible?

As far as guaranteeing the integrity of a building?  On my Grandfather’s ranch when they went to demolish the house that was built during the Homestead era, it proved to be so soundly and tightly built with hand hewn logs – with no guidance from “experts” —  that when they tried to remove it they could not pull it down with the farm tractors. They had to burn it down. Again, how is that possible without building codes and inspectors?

A property owner should be able to build whatever kind of house they want on property they own, so long as it poses no physical danger or damage to others. If it’s a poorly built house it will have no value to potential future buyers and banks won’t accept it as collateral. People have every incentive to build quality structures and the market will deal quite ruthlessly with those who don’t.

The color or size of a house isn’t anyone’s business but the property owner’s. It shouldn’t matter what space they have in front of the house or whether the garage is in front or back. The property owner should be able to place a basketball hoop where they want or put up whatever kind of fence they want. This is how property rights work.

If a prospective homeowner wants protection against what neighbors might do, they buy property in a development that has covenants restricting use and construction – which would be something they CHOOSE to accept.

While much attention is being given to lot sizes and prohibitions against multi-family units, there are also hundreds of regulations dictating how people should build, dictates that impose extraordinary costs while eliminating no risks. Some years ago, there was a report that concluded that unnecessary regulations imposed $40,000 on a typical new house in Montana. And – they said Montana was one of the worst states for imposing costly and overly restrictive regulations.

Some cities restrict colors one can paint a house, whether gardens are permissible, or how high the fence can be. Good grief, we had planners who were consternated about how wide a garage door should be or whether a property owner could build an apartment over their garage. In Billings, in order to appease someone else’s sense of esthetics, ordinances force property owners to place garages in the alley. What business is it of theirs, especially when you know the last thing you are going to see after a two-foot snowstorm is a city snow plow?

Regulations on property use have much broader impacts than just cost. Decades ago it was  common for people – especially the elderly – to rent out a room in their home – quite often to students – which was not only more affordable but helped older home owners to afford to stay in their homes. It also provided social interaction for older people, who otherwise might live very solitary lives, and it created a degree of security for both the landlords and tenants. This, too, was made illegal as municipalities policed the use of private property. But again, the “experts” in some communities have changed their views and are allowing “mother – in-law” apartments – not so much because of broader social and economic benefits but because it addresses their earlier mistakes in creating urban sprawl.

However, current policies still continue to create urban sprawl, as was revealed during community discussions last year by builders who said they don’t want to build within the city and many people don’t want to live within the city, because of violations of private property rights.  They “sprawl” into the country side.

One could go on and on explaining the ridiculousness of housing regulations and  the real things that happen, which not only impose costs on homebuilders but cripple housing availability.  Just strike up a conversation with a builder and they will readily tell you. If you listen to them you will be doing more than most municipal leaders.

Bear in mind the builders, engineers and architects tend to keep mum about building conflicts and ineffectual regulations, because as one architect pointed out to me some years ago, the building department and city hall control most aspects of their professions and if they want to stay in business they better keep their mouths shut and heads down.

So while House Bill 337 is certainly welcome, our right to own and use property already covers the violations it addresses, and while the bill may be of some help, housing will remain unaffordable and increasingly limited, until the housing market becomes free, and property owners can determine for themselves what they want. What we really need is the reinstitution of private property rights.


You must be logged in to post a comment.