Thoughts on Zoning

Here’s a thought on zoning: zoning is racist.

For those of you who get zoning confused with building codes, those are two different things: building codes generally follow a nationally-accepted consensus model, and have mainly to do with life safety, fire protection, structural durability, and extreme weather resistance of buildings. Zoning, which is shorthand for a municipal development ordinance, tends to be more home cooked, providing very specific limitations on what may be built where (the zones) in a given city.

Zoning is racist both in its intent and in its effects. While originally conceived in New York in the early 20th century as a means of providing minimum public health standards in what was then a rapidly urbanizing and densifying city, zoning morphed over the past century into an effective tool for oppression. Since restrictive covenants regarding race and housing have been struck down by the courts, zoning is now the last bastion of white supremacy in our real estate legal framework. (I’ll let somebody else take on the mortgage lending industry).

Why do I say this? Well, if you’ve ever read a zoning ordinance (great if you suffer from insomnia, by the way), you would see that the primary purpose of zoning in today’s world is to prevent poor people from living anywhere near rich people. You don’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to deduce what might be meant by “poor people” and “rich people.”

The ordinance doesn’t use those exact words, of course. It uses technocratic language to screen its racist intent. So what you will read, instead of “the poor can’t live anywhere near the rich,” is a lot of jargon-filled technocratese about minimum lot size, required setbacks, minimum unit area, and maximum floor area ratio. Sound racist? No, it doesn’t. But its purpose is quite clear. Keep the rich and the poor as far apart as possible. In some suburban municipalities, these lot size requirements, land use regulations and other technical impediments are specifically calibrated to prevent the construction of multifamily dwellings (apartments) of any size in any location. Because, as we all know, apartments lead to minorities, which leads to crime, and total societal breakdown. If that kind of statement shocks you, you should attend a meeting of your city’s Planning Commission sometime and hear it for yourself.

The queen of zoning categories, in every ordinance I have ever perused, is R-1, single family zoning. Minimum lot size will vary by city, but R-1 reigns supreme over all other categories. This is quite intentional, and when you think about it, quite obvious. Cities will have an array of lesser residential categories with different labels (some rather comical, like “R-3aPUD”), but always in train behind R-1, the category king. And in any discussion about modifying zoning, or granting exceptions to the regulations, the conversation always comes back to “protecting property values,” primarily the property values of the single family homes in the R-1 district, first and foremost.

I am reminded of my late mother, Missouri-born daughter of an unreconstructed racist from Versailles, Missouri. My mother would always say, “I have nothing against Black people per se. I’m just concerned that having them move into my neighborhood would lower our property values.” This statement, which sounds rather jarring in 2020, conceals its racism behind a fig leaf of economic logic. Which is exactly what zoning does. Zoning says, in effect, “We have nothing against Black people per se. We just want to ensure that the property values of our single family homes are protected by never having any live within 1,000 feet of our beloved R-1 zoning district.”

So how do you fix zoning? Much as I dislike sounding like a campus radical, I think we need to blow it up. Zoning is the last legal impediment to integrated, mixed-use, mixed income neighborhoods in most American cities, and its purpose is to insulate the wealthy from the poor, which in most of America means insulating the white community from the Black community. It’s time to end it.

All that land-use regulation really needs to do is to keep truly noxious land uses away from people’s bedrooms. I could write you (and would be happy to, for free) a one-page zoning ordinance that would prevent the construction of meat-packing plants or airports in residential neighborhoods. As for the rest of it, the absurdly fine-grained distinctions between R-2 and R-2a(c): tear them up and throw them away. Our cities will be better for it.

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