Property Rights, Markets, and Feldman’s Fight for Neighborhood Preservation

In the early part of the twentieth century, the University of Arizona occupied a quaint, two story, brick building now referred to as “Old Main”. Meanwhile, not far away, a number of “sanatoriums” were being built for TB patients from across the country. The neighborhood north of Speedway was nicknamed “Lung Hill.” Today the University of Arizona has metastasized into a gigantic sports, research, and educational facility with an international student body that numbers around 38,000. “Lung Hill” is now the Feldman’s Historic District and Neighborhood Association, in which many of the sanatorium buildings, along with homes of the same vintage, still stand. The Feldman’s neighborhood is primarily residential, composed of both owner-occupied and rented houses, with a mix of university employees, students, and others.

As the university student population has ballooned – doubling over the last few decades – the market for student housing has increased concomitantly. Naturally, areas around the university have seen an increase in student residents. Often a parent would lease, or even purchase, a house near the university and the child, along with any number of friends, would occupy it. Eventually, developers began to respond to the market demand by building rental structures designed for the student customer – they were nicknamed “mini-dorms”.

Long established residents of these neighborhoods suddenly realized that they did not live in gated communities, and as Dylan said, “The times they are a-changin'”. The folks in Feldman’s Historic District and Neighborhood Association were on the cutting edge of these changes, and they did not like it one bit. Seeing, or seeking, no alternative, they sought the force of government to freeze time and turn their neighborhood into a preserve.

Of course, a villain was necessary. The obvious one is the University of Arizona. Its inability to provide accommodations for its students is the root of the problem. The behavior of students themselves, not their existence, is the problem itself. One might even blame the residents themselves for not protecting the neighborhood with extreme zoning before now. Somehow, all these parties were overlooked, and the mini-dorm developer, Michael Goodman, became the bad guy.

Look, I would not want affordable student housing in my neighborhood either. However, I find it hard to condemn a developer who is satisfying a need in the community while staying within zoning laws and codes. He also purchased the land he wished to change. He did not seek the help of city government to force a change on other people’s property. A primary function of property rights is to settle the question of land use. If you want to call the shot, you buy the property. The alternative is large protracted fights over land use with some arbiter assigning a solution that pleases nobody. The idea of ownership also tends to direct land to the best use. For example, a couple with children would be willing to pay more for a four bedroom house than a retired couple, so they each end up in suitable houses. In fact, professionals often buy properties on which to build structures to satisfy a local need. Then they become the villain.

While Feldman’s may have no choice but to resort to extreme zoning – the approval of the development manual and NPZ overlay – other neighborhoods might take some preemptive action. Imagine a neighborhood that came together and pooled some resources and bought up the properties that came up for sale. Once there was a consensus, the residents could contract with each other to adhere to guidelines regarding the properties that went above and beyond the zoning. They could get the city to give them the streets and public areas, abandon the rights of way, etc. They could limit access, take responsibility for the roads, and be at peace with each other, like a gated community.

I know that gated communities are not at all “cool”, but we’re not posing here. Look, people talk a lot about loving “diversity”, but they don’t mean it. I’m sure many of the residents of Feldman’s Historic District and Neighborhood Association hold “diversity” close to their hearts, until it arrives on their streets. They then clamor for tighter zoning. The point of zoning laws, my friends, is to prevent diversity. No family wants to live by a meat packer, a mini-dorm, or a 24-hour coffee shop.

Hopefully, the example of Feldman’s will lead to securing neighborhoods through co-operative rather than combative methods.