The FWD: We Need to Talk About Zoning During Fair Housing Month

The FWD #148 • 346 Words

ZOning policies don’t just separate homes from factories—they separate neighbors.

Last week the New York Times ran an op-ed with the provocative headline, “The New Redlining is Deciding Who Lives in Your Neighborhood.” This next generation of redlining isn’t because of banks or insurance companies—instead, it’s cities, counties and towns using the most powerful land use tool to define the shape and character of our communities: zoning.

Zoning ordinances began appearing in the early 20th Century as a supposed way to separate incompatible and potentially harmful land uses; for example, by stopping homes from being built next to slaughterhouses. However, ample records show that racial segregation was often the primary reason localities established zoning ordinances. In doing so, they intentionally separated rich from poor, owners from renters, and white from Black.

Today, about 75% of land in cities is reserved for single family homes only. Combined with decades of population growth and shrinking household sizes, this policy creates a shortage of new homes. In fact, Virginia and the entire country are currently experiencing record low supplies of homes. This drives up all home prices and pushes new supply away from starter homes toward more profitable, higher cost homes. Minority buyers—whose families accrue far less generational wealth because of this paradigm—are more likely to be pushed out of the market as prices rise.

Increased awareness of this history in recent years is beginning to influence policymakers. The proposed American Jobs Plan—President Biden’s infrastructure initiative—contains a $5 billion competitive grant program which would incentivize localities to “eliminate exclusionary zoning.” The draft text specifically calls out “minimum lot sizes, mandatory parking requirements and prohibitions on multifamily housing.”

Residential integration in the US continues to lag behind our rapidly changing racial demographics. What we need is a creative dismantling of our 100-year-old approach to land use. Incentives like those in the American Jobs Plan might help bring zoning into the 21st Century, and may prove to be one of our most effective fair housing strategies. Let’s keep this momentum going beyond the end of this year’s Fair Housing Month.

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