On Housing & Land Use Regulatory Agencies

What began in the early 20th century, under Robert Moses*, as an optimistic (and idealistically naive) application of ‘science’ to administrative affairs, has metastasized into a dangerous and seemingly out of control bureaucratic quagmire of regulatory overreach. Its practitioners, who may sincerely believe they are serving a public good, are deluding themselves. And now the activists and special interests, who exploit these administrative systems through law-fare and lobbying, have succeeded in welding on ever more absurd intrusions on private property rights that threaten to bring the whole enterprise to a halt.

Architects, contractors, and their clients regularly confront this ever increasing bureaucracy and its byzantine regulatory system of review with disbelief that it can continue to get worse with each passing year. No one can [convincingly] say what public benefit all this rule making and oversight serves. Indeed in most cases the underlying premises are faulty and unscientific. The rules, forms, interpretations and requirements have quite literally become unknowable because of their immense volume on the one hand, and because of their inscrutable subjectivity on the other.

“Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victim may be the most oppressive. It may be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated, but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.”

C.S. Lewis

It is time for architects and their clients to resist simply complying with preposterous permitting processes. We must no longer quietly tolerate the unnecessary delays they introduce into the building process. We must all begin to demand that the politicians we elect clean up the mess they have created by letting these unaccountable building and land use executive departments loose upon us. We must let them know that while we may respect that limited zoning rules may benefit our neighborhoods, property rights must also be respected and observed. Building departments must be re-tasked to their primary purpose of spot checking that contractors, architects and property owners are complying with basic (and limited) predictable rules that respect the property rights of their neighbors and communities— and issuing permits in a timely manner.

*Robert Moses was a public administration official of New York City (at one time he held 12 official titles at once) who almost single handedly introduced so-called professional scientific public administration of civic and metropolitan affairs with respect to public works, urban planning, zoning and development regulation. Beginning his career shortly after the turn of the century he reached the zenith of his power in 50’s and continued to have almost autocratic control into the late 1960s.