“The purpose to be accomplished…is to segregate them according to their income”


According to the Supreme Court, the people who live here are “parasites.” Credit: A Chicago Sojourn.

Been busy this week working on a few writing projects, but I came across this on Twitter (thanks, @markvalli!) and it’s too good not to share. It turns out that Euclid v. Ambler, the Supreme Court case that ratified zoning as a constitutional use of state power, actually overturned a federal district court that had ruled that zoning was unconstitutional. That district court wrote:

The purpose to be accomplished is really to regulate the mode of living of persons who may hereafter inhabit it. In the last analysis, the result to be accomplished is to classify the population and segregate them according to their income or situation in life.

Recall, please, that the Supreme Court overturned this decision by arguing that apartments, and the people who lived in them, were “parasites” who were trying to “take advantage of the open spaces and attractive surroundings” of more affluent neighborhoods.

One thing that always gets me is that the contemporary excuse for past crimes – “It was a different time! They couldn’t have had our perspective on [issue of justice].” – is almost always a lie. There were almost always people who understood exactly what was going on, and who shared that opinion loudly. In, say, a federal court’s official decision. The reason the injustice was perpetrated anyway wasn’t that people didn’t understand; it was that they didn’t care. Apartment-dwellers are “parasites.” People like not having to live around people poorer than them.

But the fact that segregation is popular – today as in 1926 – doesn’t make it any less wrong.


10 thoughts on ““The purpose to be accomplished…is to segregate them according to their income”

  1. The self-evident superiority and primacy of detached, single-family housing is so woven into this decision, the writer doesn’t even address it. He says that “residential character” can be “utterly destroyed” by apartment houses–as if apartments are not also residences. Here is the doomsday scenario:

    “Moreover, the coming of one apartment house is followed by others, interfering by their height and bulk with the free circulation of air and monopolizing the rays of the sun which otherwise would fall upon the smaller homes, and bringing, as their necessary accompaniments, the disturbing noises incident to increased traffic and business, and the occupation, by means of moving and parked automobiles, of larger portions of the streets, thus detracting from their safety and depriving children of the privilege of quiet and open spaces for play, enjoyed by those in more favored localities — until, finally, the residential character of the neighborhood and its desirability as a place of detached residences are utterly destroyed.”

    1. Yeah. I think it’s understandable that people have an attraction to single-family homes; what I wish would be appreciated better is the consequences of legally mandating them. And then, of course, for people to care about those consequences.

    2. What’s not said, but is implied, is that apartment houses are considered by the court to be a commercial use.

      Sutherland’s visions of apartment apocalypse weren’t dreamed up on the spot by his clerk, though. If you read the below American Civic Association publication from 1920, you’ll see on p. 46 a very similar anti-apartment screed (by zoning advocate Herbert Swan). I don’t know if that particular publication was before the court, but in any event this sort of scenario was eagerly promoted by zoning boosters in the early 1920s and there similar sorts of accounts made it into amicus briefs for the city of Euclid.


  2. The usual answer to “it was a different time” is “so today’s court would overturn the decision?” – when times really change, the Plessys get repealed or turned into dead letters.

    1. Yeah. Unfortunately, it’s pretty hard to imagine anything as ambitious as the desegregation campaigns of the late 60s and 70s happening today. And the Supreme Court has certainly moved farther right on race than it’s been in the last half century.

      1. Isn’t free market “Right Wing”these days?And opposition to zoning as such is “pretty right wing” free market.”Planning for me,and not for thee”
        seems to dominate these days.

      2. I don’t think that opposition to a government action is by definition “right wing.” For example: drug legalization.

  3. One aspect of the Euclid decision that particularly bothers me is that it fails to answer or even address the primary legal question about “apartment houses” that the court had not yet reached, but acts as though it does. Note that, earlier in the decision, Justice Sutherland acknowledges that form-based restrictions (height, setbacks, FAR and so forth) had already been upheld by the courts. When he comes to the exclusion of apartments, however, he justifies their exclusion by reference to the “height and bulk” of apartments versus “smaller homes,” and also to “open space,” which again suggests a difference in ground coverage. But this was not the issue, since no one disputed the city’s right to legislate building form.

    The issue instead was, assuming that a district was zoned for height and bulk, could a city selectively prohibit multiple occupancy dwellings? That is, in a district where maximum FAR (or its equivalent) allowed, say, 3,000 sq. ft. structures, could the city permit a 3,000 sq. ft. single-family house but ban a structure of identical size and shape with two 1,500 sq. ft. units, or six 500 sq ft. units? When deprived of the reasons based on the assumption that an apartment house would be larger than single-family houses, Sutherland’s logic mostly evaporates, and he’s left only with another assumption (that people would park on the street).

    The problem was that Sutherland raised the apartment issue more or less sua sponte – it wasn’t directly at issue in the case – and since he wasn’t bound by a particular fact pattern, he was free to make his own assumptions. It’s the reason why judges generally try to stick to the facts before them and not wander off the beaten path into hypothetical scenarios.

    1. Yeah – I remember reading something along those lines in “Zoned Out,” I think. Thanks for the details.

      1. Right. There’s also the issue of subdividing an existing house into multiple units — an incredibly common (before zoning) and cheap way of increasing the housing stock in SFD neighborhoods. Again, not contemplated in Euclid.

        A related question: if an owner of a SFD house in a downward-filtering neighborhood with stagnant or declining rents cannot legally subdivide his house, does that have the potential to accelerate physical decline, since the landlord cannot compensate for decreased rents by increasing the number of tenant households? No idea of the answer, just putting it out there.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s