Today’s battles

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.

6 thoughts on “Today’s battles

  1. Daniel, I appreciate the quick and well-developed response to my post. But I think we’re at the point where we’re just going to have to agree to disagree. Ultimately this comes down to different conclusions because of different worldviews.

    I totally acknowledge your point that calls for zoning reform enjoy strong consensus. It enjoys strong consensus because it makes rational sense — increasing the number of units in existing single family districts, whether in cities or suburbs, would increase the number of units, increase affordability, reduce inequality and create more of the kind of dynamic and vibrant communities we want to see. This consensus seems especially true of economists with interests in cities, but there is growing support from other social scientists, like Patrick Sharkey.

    Sadly, I feel — and can’t quantify, but feel — that far less rational forces often guide our housing policy, and that intellectually correct policy can lead to irrational unintended consequences.

    The underlying force was put rather bluntly by Alderwoman Sharon Tyus in my Guardian article: “no one wants to live next to black people.” As long as that insidious force remains, zoning reform will come with unintended consequences.

    Also in the Guardian, I noted how in St. Louis the city’s north side has had the same difficulties in attracting new residents that I mention here in Chicago. The pattern has shifted to North St. Louis County, where Ferguson became a flashpoint. A recent article I found in Atlanta mentioned the rapid increase in suburban poverty as minorities move into newly available suburbs, and the increase in household income in areas where more whites are moving.

    I recognize that my point is a minority view. Honestly, I can’t understand why we agree on the problem but disagree on this aspect of the solution. I can only surmise that it’s because of a difference in worldviews and our faith in policy to create the desired response.

    1. Agreed on agreeing to disagree, Pete. I’m glad we’ve had the chance to talk this out, online and in person, and I think I’ve learned some, but I think you’re right that we’re probably not going to get much further.

      I’m completely with you that “no one wants to live next to black people” has been, and continues to be, basically the most important fact about American cities. If we can agree that broader acceptance of that truth is crucial, that seems like something.

    2. It’s a good discussion, but I have to challenge the idea that “no one wants to live next to black people.” This statement is contradicted by what happens in cities with high house prices. In New York, white people have flocked to Bed-Stuy. In DC, Bloomingdale and Petworth have been picked over. The same is happening in Oakland, CA. White people DO live next to black people when prices drive them out of other neighborhoods. But it’s arguable that this is good for the legacy residents of those neighborhoods. It results in displacement and exclusion. (just ask Spike.) I think Pete has it wrong on this one. Opposing exclusionary zoning does little to help disinvested neighborhoods, and only serves to reinforce privilege and consolidate segregation.

      1. I dunno – those counter-examples definitely exist, but research I’ve seen tends to suggest that there really is an extreme reluctance to settle in black neighborhoods, even when “push” factors like high housing costs exist. Investment and people generally avoid black neighborhoods and find somewhere else to land.

  2. 1. I’m not sure I agree with your argument that exclusionary zoning contributed to the decline of Englewood and similar neighborhoods. Although it decreased the supply in newly created suburbs, it did not necessarily increase the demand. However, other related housing policies, such as redlining and the resulting tendency to favor the creation of new neighborhoods over the preservation of old neighborhoods, might be more relevant.

    2. I would argue that exclusionary zoning has become less effective, at least in the inner ring suburbs, as demand has decreased. Most inner ring suburbs have acquired a substantial non-white population (I think Park Ridge might be the only suburb adjacent to Chicago that is still >90% white) and a substantial low-income population. Many “exurbs” have not acquired the same diversity, but there are other factors, such as auto dependence, that prevent low-income people from moving in.

    As for your point that segregation is now about divisions between suburbs, I would argue that this is more because of housing discrimination than zoning. For example, the south suburbs generally have a similar built environment to the northwest suburbs, and you can’t explain the difference between their demographic changes without racially based housing discrimination.

    I would be interested in seeing your argument that rich areas tend to stay rich. I remember seeing census data that South Shore had considerably above average incomes in 1940, and other now-poor neighborhoods such as Bronzeville and Englewood used to have a reputation for being wealthy. However, I remember from your article that the green areas from 1970 generally stayed green. Maybe “rich areas tend to stay rich” is a new phenomenon?

    3. I think Pete’s main argument is that we should instead focus on fighting white/upper class flight. But I tend to agree with you on this one – wealthier neighborhoods and suburbs are more likely to have the institutional resources to pull of the Oak Park style “transition management” that he describes.

    However, I do think that upzoning the exurbs isn’t very practical unless there are major public infrastructure investment taken to make them more walkable. And there are negative unintended consequences of upzoning “desirable” urban neighborhoods – it could create a “density gap” between the gentrifying and non-gentrifying neighborhoods that is used as a rationale for continued disinvestment in non-gentrifying neighborhoods. For example, this article shows how high-density neighborhoods are more likely to improve than low-density neighborhoods. Of course, if we had equitable urban development, this wouldn’t be an issue because there wouldn’t be such as disparity in demand between neighborhoods. However, if inequitable urban development remains the norm, there could be unintended consequences of creating the “bifurcated city” that Pete has described.

    1. Yeah, that stuff about Englewood was just conjecture – I’m agnostic about whether that’s actually the case. It’s an empirical question, of course, but one that’s maybe hard to actually study.

      As for your second point, yes, I think that’s absolutely right – exclusionary zoning only works when demand is high. But helps enable the creation of new exclusive communities further out, or in inner suburbs and city neighborhoods that see an increase in demand.

      I’m somewhat skeptical that housing discrimination is a bigger issue than zoning (though it’s certainly an issue), but again that’s an empirical question and someone has probably studied it. The fact that the south suburbs have a similar built environment only matters if they also have a similar demand – which they most certainly do not. The entire south quadrant of the metro area, with a few exceptions, has basically been written off by the white middle class, which means that the largest single demographic of housing demanders is almost completely absent. Prices, as a result, are super low.

      As for “rich areas staying rich,” I’m working on a couple things about that. “Great American City” is a good source. As is this: One of its findings is that between 1990 and 2010, something like 85% of wealthy census tracts stayed wealthy.

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