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Are Zoning Laws Weaponized?

Should city governments dictate where you can shop for food? If your neighbors see a need for a store, and happily patronize it, should others shut down that option?  These are the battle lines of the emerging movement against dollar stores. Tulsa, OklahomaMesquite, TexasDekalb County, GeorgiaNew Orleans, Louisiana, and other municipalities nationwide using zoning laws to limit the number of dollar stores that can serve their population.

The people who actually shop at dollar stores love them. The most frequent customers are seniors on fixed incomes, cash-strapped students, and busy parents. If you don’t have a car or access to public transit, there’s probably one within five miles of your house. If you drive, there’s a dollar store on your way to just about anywhere.

Only Dollar Tree still prices all its goods at $1, but Family Dollar and Dollar General might have 10,000 products for that price, and reasonable deals on $2-$10 goods. It’s a place where almost anyone on any budget can splurge a little on treating themselves.

Sixty-two percent of adults surveyed by brand intelligence firm Morning Consult say Dollar Tree “has a positive effect on my community” (compared to 51 percent for Starbucks and 59 percent for Target).

People who can afford more choices like driving out to a big-box store, buying in bulk, ordering online, patronizing a farmer’s market—simply can’t see the perspective of someone for whom the dollar store is the most practical option.

Many people criticize the quality of the products

You’ll hear critics claim dollar stores engage in “predatory” behavior by offering prices that are simultaneously too low (undercutting potential competitors) and also too high (as compared to a per-unit cost at the Costco 15 miles away).  This drives out local business from one perspective, but it creates much needed competition from another.

Many people criticize the wages and benefits offered to employees

Others complain retail jobs offered by dollar stores are “low quality and low-wage” but also that dollar stores don’t create enough of these low-quality, undesirable jobs. However, those in desperate need of the income or those looking for a first job are still clamoring for those jobs.

Is this simply a failure to relate

So if not those surface-level concerns, what’s really driving dollar-store bans? Could it be a simple lack of perspective?

In the neighborhoods and rural areas where dollar retailers are most popular, they offer affordable groceries to those with tight budgets, packed schedules, and limited mobility.

These laws are proposed by people who don’t shop in dollar stores and can’t understand why anyone would want to.

planner and architect from Baltimore said dollar stores were popping up in poorer neighborhoods, “like a parasite.” Bill Torpy, columnist for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution said County Commissioners were right to be “disgusted” as dollar stores moved in (the headline has since been changed to “rightly sees little value in”).

Residents of Chester, Vermont, rejected a proposed dollar store because residents feared “the beginning of the end for Chester’s Vermontiness.” Dollar store skeptics nationwide say they value “community character” and reject the “unsightliness” of dollar store signage.

For people with cars, free time, and disposable income, “just drive two miles to the grocery store” may seem like benign advice. But for people just getting by, it’s dismissive of their real challenges.

Is it proper to use government power to block people’s access to affordable bread, pencils, and toilet paper?

If a nonprofit had set up 30,000 locations providing ultra-affordable, shelf-stable groceries, concentrated in areas with the most need at a low price would we besmirch it?  If not then, why do we weaponize zoning laws to counter act capitalism?

It is not wrong to care about community character or beautiful streets. But is it proper to care about them so much that you’ll use government power to block other people’s access to affordable bread, pencils, and toilet paper.

No community is a utopia, not even those behind the gates.  There will always be individuals and families that do not have the transportation or the capital to pass the dollar store, for the Publix or Whole Foods.  No one is trying to argue that they are equal, but to argue that they should be illegal appears to fall upon a failure of understand different perceptions of need.

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