We all want to live in Rich People City

The idea of a city for the rich is tantalizing. Like a Richard Scarry book, but instead of the town baker being a lion or the local carpenter being a bear, that guy pushing a stroller is Tim Cook and the woman in line behind you at the grocery store is Kelly Ripa.

There are plenty of little enclaves for the obscenely well-off scattered around the country. Rich people have to sleep somewhere, even if that somewhere is a super-cool $50,000 bed. Every city has its toney bedroom community, but some are wealthier than others.

For example, Chicago has Kenilworth, a town where the average family income is close to $350,000 and development is so tightly controlled that there are no restaurants. New York has the Hamptons, formerly home to the most expensive zip code in the country, and the Bay Area has Atherton, currently the most expensive zip code, chock-a-block with Silicon Valley’s wealthiest executives. Atherton is so rich that it’s where the actual Charles Schwab lives.

There is something alluring about finding a backdoor into one of these places: inheriting some small, overlooked fixer-upper in Malibu or lucking into a little bungalow in Beverly Hills. Presumably, the property taxes on the mansions of the very rich fund fantastic public amenities, like libraries that look like Barnes and Noble bookstores, or community theaters with Broadway-style production values.

From the perspective of getting your kids a good education at a public school, there is really no question that it would always be preferable to be the poorest family in a school district. This is, obviously, not true from the perspective of the kid in middle school or high school who is forced to wear Avias in a town full of Yeezys. But from the perspective of overall value, the richer the school district, the more property tax can be spent per pupil. While this is not going to lead to the best outcomes every time, it is preferable to having the same income as everyone else in a district with low property tax revenues and lower-than-average spending per pupil.

Unfortunately, there are very few “back doors” into a community like Beverly Hills. And, just as it can be difficult for a middle-class nobody to get into Bridgehampton’s Polo Club unless they are some sort of one-in-a-million polo phenom, it can be similarly difficult for a low-income family to break into a middle-class suburb.

Unlike other commodities, access to a neighborhood, and with it, schools and services, is a highly regulated and politicized commodity. This is why there is an affordable housing crisis in America today: “affordable housing” is not something most middle-class (to say nothing of very wealthy) communities are actively looking to build. When it is proposed in a neighborhood full of homeowners, a very vocal subset of those homeowners can be counted on to protest the proposal. Newspapers run stories about NIMBYs opposing affordable housing proposals every day. Often the proposal’s opponents even have enough tact and good sense to frame their objections in terms of such
“neutral” issues as increased traffic congestion or the nebulous “community character” criterion.

And, as some middle-class homeowner can reliably be counted on to ask in these cases, what’s wrong with a community controlling development within its borders?

Legally, there is nothing wrong with it. This is what zoning is, and what building codes are, and why there are a host of other tools that municipalities can use to control development within their borders. Zoning controls the supply of land available for various kinds of development.

The larger question is: is it ethical to create a city for the rich, or a suburb that is off-limits to all but those above a certain income level? In the abstract, it rankles: a bunch of white (usually), rich (relatively), suburban homeowners essentially protesting “opportunity” for people who are less rich and, probably, less white.

But, on the other hand, local control and local politics can mean keeping out a Wal-Mart that might otherwise suck the life out of a little town’s core. It can mean holding the line on design standards that everyone agrees make a community charming and interesting. Development controls are not inherently bad.

In her 1999 article Kant, Ideal Theory, and the Justice of Exclusionary Zoning, philosopher Sarah Williams Holtman unpacks this question of ethics in local control, using Immanuel Kant’s theory of justice as a roadmap through this difficult terrain.

Dr. Holtman frames the question in a way that reflects the reality of most metropolitan areas: most well-to-do suburban areas have zoning regulations or another mix of codes that result in very little land being devoted to apartments or other forms of housing that are affordable to low-income families. These well-to-do communities have the property tax base to fund community services and high-quality educational opportunities. By shutting low-income families out of these communities, local governments are restricting their independence — their ability to pursue an attractive possibility. When this happens systematically and consistently, there is an ethical problem.

Holtman goes on to say that “Government must take steps to remedy significant impingements on independence that result from limitations on fundamental interests.” This does not mean stripping communities of their zoning power or local control. It may however mean that suburban communities have to accept a fair share of affordable housing within a region. And getting that done has, historically, meant that state (and sometimes regional) governments have had to step in and overrule overly restrictive local decision-making.

By applying this same idea of “independence” to how something like fair share requirements would affect the ‘burbs, Dr. Holtman concludes: “It is likely that the costly services and facilities many suburbs offer might be scaled back significantly without substantially risking anyone’s freedom, equality, or independence.”

In other words, if an affordable housing development’s “cost” to suburban homeowners is a few extra seconds of delay at a busy intersection, or a slightly larger than average new building, or a few more students added to the local elementary school in the fall, trying to block this development is, to put it mildly, not a good look for these homeowners. The potentially life-altering consequences of having access to better schools and safer streets are so great that systematically denying these benefits to low-income families amounts to a breach of ethics.



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Aaron McKeon

Aaron McKeon


Professional planner, unprofessional writer. Member of the American Institute of Certified Planners. Also, a Sunday School teacher.