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 I 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.
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.