John Hood

If you own it, you control it. That’s what it means to enjoy a property right, in a nutshell. It is a right safeguarded by North Carolina’s constitution as well as the 14th amendment to the federal Constitution, among other provisions.

And it is a right denied every day by localities across North Carolina.

As you may know, there are political fights across our state right now about housing. Some communities, worried about worsening affordability and responding to the preferences of young consumers, are considering plans to open up their housing markets by allowing higher-density development, “granny flats,” and other ways to add capacity at a reasonable cost.

At every step, these reformers find their way blocked by residents who seek to preserve or even tighten existing rules against such practices. All too often, these battles get headlined as “developers vs. neighborhoods.”

To frame the issue this way, however, is to ignore a large group of people: would-be homeowners and renters. They want reasonably priced options for housing. Developers want to sell them. Lot-size requirements and other government restrictions stand in the way of both willing buyers and willing sellers.

Naturally, the “neighborhood” advocates have an argument. Who doesn’t? They contend that more residences per square mile mean more vehicular traffic, more people, more bustle, more noise. Having already bought or rented their current residences, they argue that their quality of life will be harmed.

These debates usually devolve into competing factual claims, the wording of zoning ordinances and speculations about the feasibility of transit or walkability as an alternative to automotive transportation. Not enough attention is paid, I think, to the fundamental question: What do you think you own?

If I own a piece of property, I have a right to enjoy and dispose of that property as I see fit. I may also have some specified rights to the use or sharing of other resources held in common among the neighbors, depending on the particular deal struck and certain practical realities of the local geography.

But I don’t own the property of my neighbors. I don’t own a deed to a specific traffic count on the street, or a minimum distance from a place of business, or an expected “property value,” or to choose what kinds of people I may encounter. To be sure, generations of residents, politicians and “experts” have claimed otherwise. That doesn’t make their position reasonable.

In places where governments impose more and heavier regulations on the production and sale of housing, it costs more. The empirical evidence for this relationship is overwhelming. Yes, places with plentiful high-paying jobs and other amenities are popular places to live, which bids up housing prices. But those prices, in turn, make it attractive for developers to supply more housing. That tends to keep the median cost roughly in line with the median income of prospective buyers — unless government gets in the way.

North Carolinians have the right to purchase, use, enjoy and dispose of their property as they see fit. This sphere of private ownership and control very much includes housing. In a free society, the proper response to questions about high-density housing and granny flats and the like is going to be that those who own the property to be developed or used – not those who happen to live nearby – get to answer those questions.

What reasonable exceptions there may be, such as direct impairment of neighboring property or immediate health and safety concerns, reinforce this principle rather than undercutting it. If you blast your music so loud that it make it impossible for me to function normally, or host a party that leads to your drunken friends parking or puking on my lawn, I am entitled to take action.

But if you rent your basement apartment to a group of earnest if hapless students from the local college, I am entitled to do nothing more than chuckle to myself. And as a good neighbor, I’d feel obligated to wave.

John Hood (@JohnHoodNC) is chairman of the John Locke Foundation and appears on NC SPIN, broadcast statewide on UNC-TV