Uncovering JAPA

Surveying Restrictive Regulations: What Do Planners Know?

Restrictive, local land-use regulations can affect housing development. Surveys of planners' assessments of local regulations have been an established way to inventory constraints on development.

But Paul G. Lewis and Nicholas J. Marantz have identified inconsistencies in planner surveys and cast doubt on the reliability of such measures.

In their article "What Planners Know: Using Surveys About Local Land Use Regulation to Understand Housing Development" in the Journal of the American Planning Association (Vol. 85, No. 4), Lewis and Marantz analyze nine surveys of municipalities in California.

Survey Responses Vary Over Time

Comparing responses in surveys from different years of the same localities, and even from similar years, led Lewis and Marantz to identify inconsistent answers to the most "ostensibly objective" questions. They suggest, researchers should combine these survey instruments with in-depth interviews and GIS-based land-use data.

An important finding is that subjective, "gut-feeling" judgments planners make about local regulations reduce measurement error. That is to say, compared with objective survey answers about such topics as the number of regulations, subjective assessments of regulatory stringency are more accurate predictors of future housing development in a jurisdiction.

In contrast, when comparing responses to objective questions from surveys conducted months apart in the same cities, the authors found that respondents gave different answers to questions that were very similar.

For questions on five of the six regulatory instruments inventoried in the surveys, municipalities that answered "no" in one survey answered "yes" in other surveys.

Identifying such inconsistencies is important, the authors argue, because researchers relying on surveys of planners have favored objective questions. A case in point is a report prepared for HUD, where the report authors strongly suggested that "surveys of planners concerning local land use regulations should solicit objective information rather than information based on informants' perceptions."

Moreover, the authors note, that regulatory inventory indexes are often based on such "objective," but potentially unreliable, measures.

Comparison of responses to two surveys administered to the same municipalities within the span of several months. From “What Planners Know” in the Journal of the American Planning Association (Vol. 85, No. 4).

Table 4: Comparison of responses to two surveys administered to the same municipalities within several months.

Survey Validity Sparks Debate on Growth Management

Lewis and Marantz's study gave rise to a rich debate on the validity and reliability of measures of growth management in a later issue of JAPA (Vol. 86, No. 2).

That debate raised several questions, comments, and recommendations:

  • Can the validity of surveys be assessed solely by using quantitative analysis?
  • Discrepancies in responses to objective questions should be situated in context.
  • Good survey design mitigates response bias and thus can provide an accurate measure of regulatory stringency.
  • Planners know the "regulatory atmosphere" and anti-development sentiment in their cities better than they know the inventory of regulations.
  • Anti-development political culture correlates strongly with housing development, and more so than specific regulations.
  • Planners' holistic assessments take the economy and regulatory climate into account and are potentially a more useful tool for researchers than objective surveys and inventories of regulations.

In their response to the comments, the authors note that their study is not a "wholesale condemnation of objective study questions," but rather an attempt to make visible their limitations, with the ultimate goal of improving the application of such studies in practice.

Housing Crisis and Regulatory Debates Addressed

Lewis and Marantz's contribution is timely and particularly relevant to the debates surrounding California's persistent housing crisis. In early 2020, SB-50, a proposal that would have allowed for upzoning in transit-oriented developments, failed in the California legislature. Surrounded by acrimonious debates on its effectiveness in increasing the housing supply and bypassing local regulations, the failure of the proposal brought to the fore stubborn political opposition to development.

Restrictive regulations are critical factors that shape regional housing supply. However, a lack of regulations does not necessarily increase the housing supply. Neighborhood desirability, economic opportunity, investor activity, and local housing markets are equally important drivers of housing production in specific jurisdictions.

How might surveys take into account not just regulatory restrictions to development, but also local conditions? Lewis and Marantz's findings show us that planners' subjective assessments can provide such critical, qualitative insights where objective surveys and inventories of regulations cannot.

Top photo: Getty Images photo.

About the Author
Elena Ion is a Master in Urban Planning candidate at Harvard University.

January 21, 2021

By Elena Ion