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The Troubling Connection Between Zoning and Racism

Many of our land-use policies have their roots in housing discrimination, and they continue to stand in the way of affordable and equitable housing. These policies need to change. Restricting single-family zoning is a place to start.

A neighborhood in Atlanta's Washington Park
Homes in Atlanta’s Washington Park, a historically Black neighborhood built in the 1920s and ’30s when housing was segregated under land-use laws. (Photo: Jabari Simama)
Fair and equitable zoning policies that support affordable housing and sustainable community development should be considered a civil right. Some of the biggest obstacles to establishing or keeping neighborhoods diverse and affordable are land-use policies, which in many cases have their roots in racism and class discrimination. It’s far past time for local and state public officials to change these policies, and to help residents learn the reasons they existed in the first place.

I work today in the area of impact development, which is aimed at maximizing both sustainability and equity in housing and community development. In this capacity, and as a former Atlanta City Council member, I have learned that much of our zoning and other land-use policies, some of them dating back to the early 20th century, have their roots in the racial segregation of cities. As Georgia State University professor Dan Immergluck wrote in his book Red Hot City, Atlanta, Baltimore, Louisville and other cities passed laws that “stipulated that Black families could not reside in homes previously occupied by whites or next to white residences.” After the Atlanta law was struck down by the state Supreme Court in 1916, the city adopted an even more restrictive law preventing African Americans from living within “a block of a white majority.”

M. Nolan Gray, a city planner and scholar of land-use policy, describes the underpinnings of racial zoning in his book, Arbitrary Lines: How Zoning Broke the American City and How to Fix It:

“Since zoning first took root in the early 20th century, it has invariably been used to enforce and perpetuate a uniquely American form of apartheid, shrouded in a fog of planning jargon and obtuse codes. The same mechanisms that allow local governments to drive up local housing costs or prohibit affordable typologies give local governments the ability to decide who gets to live where, or if they are allowed in town at all. The victims have been the poor and marginalized, whom zoning has consistently shunted into neighborhoods and municipalities with the most environmental hazards and the worst public services.”

The 1968 Fair Housing Act was supposed to prevent such housing discrimination, but we all know that the federal law has been only partially successful. Zoning regulations today still do what racially restrictive real estate covenants did yesterday: prevent neighborhoods from being diverse and equitable. Zoning requiring single-family housing is the worst culprit.

That form of land-use regulation has its roots in another form of covenant. When zoning practices largely based on race were struck down by courts, class-restrictive covenants mandating a certain lot size or price point performed the same function. The effects of those policies can be felt today in areas where homeowners protect the “character” of their neighborhoods by pressuring public officials to prevent large lots from being subdivided or multifamily housing to be built. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to understand why areas like Buckhead in Atlanta, where average homesteads consist of three acres and each acre is valued at $1 million or more, have remained largely white and upscale.

But restrictive zoning is not limited to affluent white neighborhoods. I recall 20 years ago when residents of my own predominately Black and mixed-income neighborhood, built around a public park and near a transit station, opposed an attached-townhouses development on the grounds that it might bring “the wrong elements” into our neighborhood and lower property values, even though the townhouses were going to sell at a price point higher than the average single-family home in the area. Eventually the project’s African American impact developer gave up, and the land remained vacant for several years until another developer purchased the option and built single-family detached homes that now sell for over a half a million dollars — hardly affordable.
A development of single-family houses on large lots in an Atlanta suburb.
A development of single-family houses on large lots in an Atlanta suburb. Much of our zoning and other land use policies, some of them dating back to the early 20th century, have their roots in racial segregation. (Trong Nguyen/Shutterstock)
Forcing private developers who are committed to providing affordable housing to build only single-family homes or to cap density to the point that a multifamily development is not financially viable is clearly not the answer. A better solution is to eliminate single-family housing zoning altogether, or at least restrict it to areas where it already exists.

Some cities are addressing this problem. Arlington, Va., Charlotte, N.C., Minneapolis and Walla Walla, Wash., are among those that have eliminated or reformed their single-family zoning policies. For public officials interested in this debate and wanting to build on other cities’ experiences, a good resource is Equity Metrics, which tracks changes in single-family zoning that impact “socio-demographic indicators, including racial demographics, intergenerational mobility and levels of racial residential segregation.”

Local officials might also consider doing what Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens is doing. He is offering up publicly owned land and providing incentives for both nonprofit and for-profit developers to build affordable housing on it. Zoning officials should also consider incentivizing affordable-housing development by allowing more density, including relaxing building height limits, for greater affordability and environmental sustainability.

The fight against restrictive zoning laws based on discriminatory policies of the past must be won, and that starts with the recognition that all Americans are entitled to safe, affordable and sustainable housing as a basic civil right.

Governing’s opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing’s editors or management.
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