A drone shot of a residential neighborhood.
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The Hidden Link Between Zoning and Racial Inequality

The 2020 protests against racist policing came almost 60 years after the Civil Rights Act ended explicitly racist legislation. It’s a reminder that superficially race-blind institutions, such as U.S. police post-1968, can still uphold a white supremacist power structure so long as they don’t say the quiet part out loud (Department of LaborCNBC). Another example is the U.S. housing policy, which featured government-enforced racial segregation until the Civil Rights Movement (University of Minnesota). But in reality, the government creates de facto segregation to this day. A recent study lays out the little-known connection between exclusionary zoning and racial segregation. 

Zoning laws regulate the use of land. They might specify that an area contains only residential units or buildings under a certain height (Bloomberg). Many neighborhoods are zoned to restrict land use to one single-family home per parcel. This month, a study of the Los Angeles region found “a disturbing relationship between the degree of single-family zoning, racial demographics, and racial segregation.” Places with more single-family zoning had higher racial segregation and fewer Black and Latine residents, too. The conclusion? “Restrictive zoning [has] a strong exclusionary effect” (UC Berkeley). 

TAKE ACTION

• Oppose local policies, practices, and ideas that maintain racial housing segregation. Support redistribution of resources from affluent neighborhoods to poor ones.

• Support tenants organizations and people fighting for racial and housing justice around you. 

Consider: what’s the racial and class makeup of your neighborhood? What about the group of people you consider your community? What are the formal and informal mechanisms that keep it that way? How does the reality of racial segregation complicate the tradeoff between helping those close to us versus supporting others who are not? What are the political and moral implications of where we live and who our community is?

Neighborhoods zoned only for single-family homes are whiter, wealthier, and better-educated. There’s less pollution. Kids there have safer places to play and will later go on to make more money than kids who grow up in other neighborhoods. Only people who can afford a house get to enjoy their better schools, safer streets, and cleaner air. The study’s authors say that zoning laws are one way the government helps more affluent white neighborhoods keep resources to themselves, what’s known as “opportunity hoarding” (UC Berkeley).

But racial segregation isn’t an unforeseen side effect of exclusionary zoning laws. Historically, it’s kind of been the whole point. 

Zoning laws are just over a hundred years old. Single-family zoning began in 1916 “as a way to block a Black-owned dancehall and Chinese-owned laundries from certain neighborhoods” (NPR). And restrictive zoning exploded after the 1968 prohibition of legal racial segregation. While they could no longer officially exclude people based on race, white communities and politicians knew that immigrants and people of color were more likely to live in multi-unit apartments. “In an attempt to keep neighborhoods white, cities across the country banned multi-family dwellings in neighborhoods where previously, they were allowed” (NPR). The connection between zoning and racial segregation is a feature, not a bug. 

To undo the insidious effects of de facto segregation, we need to fight restrictive zoning. But this has to be part of a broader struggle for racial and housing justice. For instance, if exclusionary zoning laws in a neighborhood are relaxed only for the benefit of luxury condo developers, the area could become more attractive to other investors and wealthier people. In that case, increasing the local housing supply could counterintuitively raise prices and actually push poorer residents out faster (Truthout). As recent research from UC Berkeley and Stanford University demonstrates, “new market-rate housing slightly increases displacement for lower-income people” (Urban Displacement Project).

Isolated policy changes aren’t silver bullets. Unless they’re part of a broader struggle for the self-determination of dispossessed peoples, those already benefiting from current injustices will probably continue to profit. That’s why ending restrictive zoning has to be part of a broader movement to shift power from landlords, politicians, and affluent white communities to working-class tenants, unhoused people, and communities of color. One of the study’s authors says building tenant power and recreating an effective government-run low-income housing program in the U.S. are necessary steps alongside zoning reforms (NPR). 

The Build Back Better plan would have incentivized zoning reform with federal grants (American Planning Association), but the bill is not expected to become law (The Hill). 

When middle-class white people got to give input on the future of their communities, they often endorsed policies to maintain the value of their private property and the whiteness of their neighborhoods, parks, and relatively well-funded schools (Economic Policy Institute). White homeowners hoarding these resources helped reproduce structural inequalities that continue today. 

But collective self-determination is everybody’s right. It shouldn’t depend on your wealth, skin tone, or homeownership status. We must demand that public services are concentrated in the areas with the most need, not the most wealth. We must ensure that the policies that facilitate resource hoarding are taken apart. And we must call policies, practices, and attitudes that maintain the whiteness, wealth, and exclusivity of certain communities what they are: covert white supremacy in action. 

Racism isn’t just about slurs and committing hate crimes. It’s about keeping resources within white communities and away from communities of color. Most times, race is never explicitly mentioned. Instead, people talk about supporting their (also white) friends and family and wanting neighbors who are a “good fit” for their (mostly white) communities. They talk about protecting the value of their properties and passing them on to the next generation. They talk about the importance of following rules that just so happen to benefit them and others like them. It’s racism in a particularly intellectually dishonest and cowardly form. We should reject these ideas in all their manifestations and be clear that safety, security, and education is everybody’s right. 


KEY TAKEAWAYS

  • There’s a strong connection between restrictive zoning and racial segregation. 

  • Single-family home zoning was created to maintain white neighborhoods. 

  • Racial equity requires transferring power from landlords, homeowners, and white communities to tenants and people of color.
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