At Corner Side Yard, Pete Saunders has an interesting case that exclusionary zoning, while once a major front in the struggle for equitable cities, is no longer relevant.
Before getting into the actual arguments, I would like to point out that this is not a common opinion among people who study these things. Patrick Sharkey, the author of a recent book on segregation and someone Pete has cited favorably on this very subject, puts it this way in the conclusion to Stuck in Place:
Integrating metropolitan areas by confronting exclusionary zoning, promoting and expanding fair-share housing plans, and developing coordinated metropolitan-wide plans for transportation, housing, education, and economic development is essential to promoting prosperity across urban areas. There is widespread consensus about the need for equitable development at the regional level. Generating the political coalitions necessary to create regional planning structures and to confront exclusionary zoning is the true challenge. [my emphasis – DKH]
Now, obviously, the fact that Sharkey feels this way doesn’t really prove anything. But I think, in weighing the evidence, it’s worth checking in with the people who have made studying this issue the focus of their careers. In this case, we have a prominent sociologist of urban inequality, a person we have already established that both I and Pete respect greatly, stating unequivocally not only that a) it is his opinion that exclusionary zoning is still relevant, but also b) there is “widespread consensus” within the field that this is the case.
With that out of the way, Pete’s argument goes like this:
1. Exclusionary zoning is not responsible for vacancies in Englewood. I think I could tell a story in which this is not entirely true: that exclusionary zoning made the suburbs and outlying neighborhoods more attractive, because more exclusive, to the middle and upper middle classes, which induced more people (including African-Americans) to leave when they could, which induced people to flee even further from the city, which contributed to the dispersion of jobs, which made Englewood’s geographic location less attractive, etc. But I will grant that the vast majority of the blame for Englewood’s depopulation has little to do with exclusionary zoning. Still, the fact that there are problems for which zoning reform is not the solution doesn’t mean that zoning reform is not important for solving other problems.
2. Black people have been able to move to areas with exclusionary zoning in the years since the 1968 Fair Housing Act. This is true, and it shows that exclusionary zoning is not, on its own, a failsafe tool of segregation. After all, exclusionary zoning promotes segregation by artificially raising housing prices; in established communities, it does that by keeping the supply of housing low relative to its demand. But if demand crashes – when, say, an area is abandoned by whites, or any other class of people with enough numbers and purchasing power to keep demand high – that strategy doesn’t work any more. That’s been the case with any number of inner-ring suburbs and outlying city neighborhoods over the last forty years.
But the fact that exclusionary zoning sometimes fails does not, again, take away from its overwhelming effectiveness elsewhere, both in the suburbs and, increasingly, in the central city. As much attention as we give the parts of our regions where demographics and economics are changing, they remain the exception, and stability in the hierarchy of privilege remains the rule. (Apologies that the paper is behind a paywall. I’m in the process of writing a post about its findings soon, which boil down to: rich areas stay rich.)
This continues to be the case in the suburbs. The fact, as Pete says, that “African Americans and all minorities have made significant inroads into suburbia” does not mean that they’ve integrated; it just means that segregation is increasingly about divisions between suburbs, or even within suburbs, as opposed to between a heavily minority Chicago and its homogeneously white satellites.
3. Zoning reform in the suburbs will cause privileged suburban residents to flee, either moving further out to the suburbs, or returning to the cities, accelerating gentrification. To some extent, this may be true: if it were legal, and someone started constructing courtyard buildings all over Wilmette, I imagine that some of the people there would move to whiter, richer pastures.
Honestly, I don’t know to what extent Pete’s fears would play out. I suspect that things would be mostly okay, for a variety of reasons: zoning reform would create gradual integration, which would be less of a shock to the locals; the greatest concentration of change would be at the center of the most privileged, in-demand regions of the metro area – places that have structural advantages like excellent educational infrastructure, access to jobs and elite social networks, and so on, that would strongly discourage broad-based flight; and the absence of exclusionary zoning would mean that those inclined to flee would have much less of a guarantee that there would be anywhere “safe” to flee to.
But I guess the bottom line is that if this is a problem, it’s always been a problem. If this is a deal-breaker for exclusionary zoning reform in 2014, I don’t see why it wasn’t a deal-breaker in the 1960s, when white flight was an even more powerful force. If integration is impossible, because white and wealthy people will always find somewhere to flee, then I’m not sure why exclusionary zoning was ever relevant, as Pete claims it once was.
Fortunately, in the bleak landscape that is American racial dynamics, there is evidence that this is not entirely true. It turns out that today – like in the past – metropolitan areas with less restrictive zoning really do tend to be less segregated racially and economically. Improvements really are there to be had. We should take them.
Update: That said, of course, I should reiterate that Pete is obviously right that exclusionary zoning is not the main problem facing places like Englewood, and zoning reform on its own wouldn’t come close to fixing the problem of inequitable urban development. But, again, the fact that it’s not a panacea doesn’t mean it’s not a part of the solution.