Human kindness should not be illegal. And yet much of America’s zoning apparatus treats it that way, sectioning off where and how humans can offer their properties to those in need. But by doing that, government confiscates from private actors the ability to humanely offer their property—be it food or shelter—to those who need it most. This leaves major public and social problems unaddressed by those in the private sector who are best suited to address them. And what is worse, it creates a belief on the part of the public that these issues can and must be cured by government and government alone.

That gets it all wrong. People have been using their properties to provide comfort and shelter for those in need—including friends and family—since time immemorial. In fact, offering aid to the poor and welcoming the needy is a tenet of virtually every major religious and ethical philosophy. And yet, in America, doing these things is illegal unless you do it in the “right” place. And in still some parts of the country, that place might be no place at all.

IJ is fighting to fix that. The right to use property encompasses not just the right to make a dwelling or start a business. Quite often, a property owner wants to do something that is simply meant to address an obvious social problem, or to help friends or family, without any traditional profit motive. Some of these uses, like offering or constructing a dwelling, can be private, cost-effective projects. But that does not mean that the government should be able to leverage its zoning codes, for example, to force otherwise homeless people back onto the streets once they have secured safe, community-friendly lodging. Nor should the government, under the pretense of helping the public, use a property’s location on a map as an excuse to derail a project that is sincerely motivated by a desire to take care of friends and family. And zoning codes are especially cruel where they make it illegal to provide basic assistance to the most vulnerable. Property owners, for example, should not be prohibited from using commercial space to help prevent unhoused people from freezing to death, opening an obviously legal shelter, feeding the hungry, or rescuing animals on rural land.

Treating those in need with the compassion and respect they deserve is a uniquely human impulse—one that government cannot replicate. But by making it illegal for everyday people to attempt to use their properties to act on that impulse, serving those in need becomes difficult or impossible. These public and social problems then grow worse, as government is especially bad at solving them. And that’s a truism that applies whether a charity’s beneficiaries are people or something else, like cast-aside animals that government animal control cannot accept or house.

IJ’s Zoning Justice Project aims to restore the historical right to use one’s private property to address public problems and help others. Every locality has problems that its government cannot fix. Zoning laws only make those problems worse by standing in the way of the private actors who can. 

Thanks to a lawsuit she filed with the Institute for Justice, Kathy Hay can now share food with her neighbors in Asotin County, Washington, using a “little free pantry” in her backyard.

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