The world beyond the blogosphere

Last week, I published a piece on the history of zoning as a civil rights issue at the Washington Post:

For years, activists and researchers have known that restrictive zoning is among the most powerful forces behind racial and economic segregation in the country….

In the aftermath of Brown…, civil rights activists took up the cause of what became known as “exclusionary zoning.” After the passage of the 1968 Fair Housing Act, President Richard Nixon’s first HUD secretary, George Romney (father of Mitt), actually devised a plan to deny federal money to cities and suburbs that engaged in exclusionary zoning….

The 1970s saw a tidal wave of high-profile civil rights lawsuits taking aim at restrictive zoning laws…

[I]n places, the fight has continued. Researcher-activists such as Douglas Massey and Myron Orfield have bolstered the academic evidence that restrictive zoning laws promote segregation, and reporters such as Hannah-Jones are keeping those stories alive….

Part of the impetus for writing it was a sense that proponents of maintaining restrictive zoning – from the Gawker article that I cited in that piece, to the lefty activists the Gawker article was ostensibly supporting, to Jim Russell and Pete Saunders – score a lot of their rhetorical points by linking people who would like to see cities legalize a wider array of building types to “bad guys,” from greedy developers to self-absorbed yuppies and hipsters.

Gawker, for example, characterized zoning reform supporters as “tech bloggers, Redditors, Hacker News trolls, and politically-connected venture capitalists.”

Jim Russell has written that “Urbanists want to gouge tenured African-American residents in order to secure cheaper access to the city,” and, on multiple occasions, that loosening zoning restrictions would “exacerbate segregation.”

Pete Saunders, for his part, has claimed that the entire idea that zoning causes problems is a “millennial fallacy,” promoted by “young urbanists” who are more interested in “where want to live” than in the broader economic health of the city.

What’s interesting here is a view of the world that completely erases decades of fair housing fights on exactly the lines that Gawker, Russell, and Saunders are more or less openly claiming to champion. In this world, the NAACP never waged a decade-plus fight to overturn restrictive zoning in New Jersey. In this world, civil rights lawyers in the Obama Administration aren’t fighting to overturn restrictive zoning in the New York suburbs right now. In this world, the country’s most respected researchers on racial and economic inequality, like Douglas Massey, haven’t authored their own studies linking exclusionary zoning to segregation.

These people seem pretty sure that restrictive zoning helps them keep out black people.
These people seem pretty sure that restrictive zoning helps them keep out black people.

The erasure is so complete that Jim Russell can use sociologist Robert Sampson’s research to “prove” that allowing more housing construction makes segregation worse – and Saunders can endorse this as a “fantastic” takedown – without ever realizing that Sampson himself has written that the exact opposite is true. (Of course, this is not an isolated incident for Russell: his very first post on the subject used research by Joe Gyourko to claim that increasing the supply of housing wouldn’t significantly reduce the price of housing, without ever disclosing that much of Gyourko’s career – including the paper that Russell quoted – has been based on proving the reverse.)

To be fair, as Surly Urbanist has pointed out, it’s not as if the more selfish motivations that these writers and activists perceive don’t exist somewhere. The rise of housing supply restrictions as a concern in places like Slate and so on surely is, to some extent, a result of rising rents becoming a bigger problem specifically for young, relatively well-to-do journalists and their social circles. Beyond that, loosening zoning regulations definitely appeals not only to fair housing advocates, but also to libertarians (who are amenable to any argument against government regulation) and developers (who see an opportunity to make money). As histories of civil rights struggles around zoning show (Our Town, for example), this has always been the case. It happens to be an issue that attracts a wide variety of people with a wide variety of interests that are, in other policy areas, usually in conflict.

The problem with the Gawker/Russell argument, besides the occasional ad hominem, is that making zoning reform a position that only villains would take doesn’t just benefit from this erasure of fair housing work; it requires it. Because once a reader realizes that, in fact, civil rights lawyers and activists have been pushing to overturn restrictive zoning for decades, the “tech blogger”/”millennial fallacy” framing just falls apart. As it should.

[EDIT: I wanted to acknowledge that Pete Saunders, in particular, has talked about a lot of fair housing issues, from redlining to contract buying. While I’d like to see him include the history of zoning fights into that narrative, I don’t want to imply that it’s completely absent.]

But keeping that history hidden – the history of zoning, but also, in some cases, the broader fair housing fight of which zoning was a part – deals a huge blow to anyone who would like to see housing and segregation return as a major issue on the national stage. The incredibly dramatic story of the 20th century fair housing movements is both a source of great inspiration, as well as a nearly endless well of lessons to be learned about activist strategies, the impact of discriminatory laws and attempts at reform, and so on. Without that history, we’re left to grope in the dark.

It would be nice, then, to see more people who are sympathetic to anti-segregation zoning reform making reference to the fact that they have inherited an issue with a long history. For every report by Nicole Hannah-Jones or Doug Massey, there’s a piece by Ed Glaeser or Ryan Avent who, while making compelling arguments against restrictive zoning, do so mostly without making reference to the civil rights aspect of the issue. There’s been some progress on this front: Jamelle Bouie, who writes for Slate, has introduced some of these ideas there. But I’d love to see that become a standard part of the left-urbanist (or anyone-who-opposes-segregation-urbanist!) spiel against status-quo zoning.

7 thoughts on “The world beyond the blogosphere

  1. I think it’s a matter of what’s in the news. In San Francisco, leftist activists have been pushing hard the meme that development = evil white gentrifiers. I can also believe that, in the specific environment of San Francisco, the privileges that usually correlate with support for zoning restrictions aren’t in strong correlation with race and income, because of several factors: strong rent control insulates poor long-timers from rising rents, the police hates gentrifiers more than minorities (compare police violence in Ferguson vs. at the more violent tech shuttle protests), low-income communities have enough power to influence local zoning, there are few students for the NIMBYs to harass. Since what you talk about is broader and longer-term, it includes not just cases where people can plausibly connect NIMBYism to progressivism, but also a more general picture, in which most abuses of power are committed by powerful people. That way, we see limits on unrelated adults living in the same house, to keep out students and group homes; racist language used by NIMBYs, e.g. what Queens Crapper says about Chinese people; openly nativist language used by NIMBYs; and scaremongering about drugs, schools, and other code words.

    1. Yeah, I think this is right. The existence of strong and widespread rent control does complicate the politics substantially. And it’s absolutely true that a significant number of people who support reducing zoning restrictions are either mum or openly hostile to any kind of subsidized housing, which, I think, reveals either a politics that’s vulnerable to Gawker’s accusations, or a really poor understanding of the issue.

      1. To be fair, I still think that, in the long run, there shouldn’t be housing subsidies, but just a guaranteed minimum income. That said, while looking up the Swedish welfare payments, which are a lot lower than I’d remembered, I saw that they count housing separately: there’s a basic benefit level, which for a single person is 3,980 SEK per month, plus whatever rent is in the general area. I suppose the point of this is that, unlike the other major expense categories, housing (and transportation) is hugely dependent on where one lives, so might as well just subsidize housing in expensive areas directly. Whether this should exist in the long term depends then on whether zoning liberalization can level price differences. I think it can, but I’m saying this with only partial data (i.e. Tokyo); there doesn’t exist any first-world city with a fully liberalized housing market to look at, just partial examples, of which the best, Tokyo, is problematic in certain ways.

        I think the real can of worms is not whether there should be housing subsidies or public housing, which I’m guessing most of the brogrammer set will be okay with, but where they should go. The Vancouver solution of putting public housing all over the city, even in desirable areas, may piss off some of the more annoying members of the brogrammer set.

      2. As far as the political issue, I’ll lump people who support a guaranteed income with people who support housing subsidies.

        My economics isn’t good enough to have a solid position, but I know that Glaeser writes that even total deregulation wouldn’t get rid of price differentials between, say, Omaha and New York, because land prices will be so radically different.

        I don’t know anything about Vancouver public housing. How’s it administered? Is it mixed-income, small scattered site, or just big projects all over the place?

        I mean, honestly, in the context of a relatively wealthy city, New York’s public housing seems like a model, at least from somewhere like Chicago.

      3. I’m embarrassed to say I don’t know nearly as much as I should about Vancouver public housing. In fact, I don’t remember ever having seen projects that advertise themselves as public housing. Knowing that I must have passed next to some public housing, it tells me a fair bit about how Vancouver builds public housing: it’s probably small scattered sites, or at least no more tower-in-a-park than the city’s private housing market. I do not know whether it’s mixed-income.

        New York seems like a model if you think about what it does today, but historically, the construction of the projects involved severe racism and segregation. The projects were formally segregated; the middle-income projects today, like Stuyvesant Town, descend from the projects built in white neighborhoods, while blacks were shunted into projects in Harlem. If you see low-income projects in a rich neighborhood today, like on the Upper West Side, then it’s a sign the neighborhood wasn’t rich when the projects were built. The more outer-urban projects are more mixed, but, at least Co-op City was built to enable middle-class flight from the South Bronx.

  2. Much public housing in British Columbia is run by the BC Housing Corporation, in Metro Vancouver and Fraser Valley . They operate a mix of townhouse, mid-rise, and high-rise projects. There many other organizations that also are also run co-op and co-housing models as well as Abbeyfield Houses. In Whistler the village subsidizes housing to enable the workforce while in the Dist of Mission they allow illegal suites if they register and pay taxes. There are many models of “making it work”, and it’s sufficiently common that you don’t notice it’s there.

  3. It seems like a bad way of framing the issue to me. The growing trend of income and wealth inequality suggests that inequality of housing will be the natural result no matter what policy city councils adopt. This is why I try and avoid using the word “gentrification”.

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