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Zoning Laws Need to Go

Zoning laws do nothing but push up costs for new housing, increasing prices and rents for newcomers.

I’ll admit that I suffer from as much confirmation bias as anyone else these days. When I saw a post from the Atlantic titled, “The Real Villain in the Gentrification Story: It’s not young, upwardly mobile college grads,” I was skeptical. “What’s the catch?” I wondered.

After reading the piece, however, I found it confirmed something I have been arguing for a long time: We shouldn’t be worried about newcomers to a city, but about the people already there who stymie new housing by imposing too many rules. However, I would push the point further: The racial segregation the author decries is really a product of regulation, or at least exacerbated by it.

Let’s start out with a quote from the article that reiterates a point I’ve made over and over again. But when someone from the Atlantic says it, it almost hints at a consensus between advocates for new housing and those who often see new housing as an effort by the wealthy to “push out” the poor from cities. It may represent a unique and transformational moment of agreement between progressives and conservatives.

New housing is not a curse. Research regularly shows that new housing does not cause displacement, but helps reduce it. According to research by the economist Kate Pennington, for people living within 500 meters of a new project in San Francisco, monthly rents and displacement risk fell. Moreover, “landlords of rent controlled units within 100 meters” were more than 30 percent less likely to evict tenants after new housing was built.

Thank you, Atlantic.

It is simple supply and demand. But progressives in cities often associate “displacement” with economic growth and jobs. Remember when New York City rejected jobs from Amazon? It is a problem of false correlation. Amazon arrives, it brings new jobs, suddenly prices for housing “sky rocket.” The result is that locals and especially people of color, get “forced out” of the city. Who is to blame? According to this theory, the new jobs and workers who have them.

Cities change, and that can be uncomfortable. Several years ago, I took a look at a neighborhood in Seattle, the Rainier Valley. Indeed, there has been a great deal of demographic change in the neighborhood as the city has grown. At first, my theory was that the ratio of white people to black people increased as the overall population increased. But I was wrong. There really was a concomitant fall in the number of black people as the number of white people rose. Were the white arrivals “pushing out” the black residents?

When I looked at the whole city, however, what I found was that the city had become less white overall. As I noted in a post at Forbes at the time, “The white population went up from 419,838 or 70.50 percent to 454,000, an increase of 34, 162 people. But as other populations increased, white people are now 69.50 percent of the population. Still a white city for sure, but it is not becoming whiter.”

And when I looked at other neighborhoods in the city, I found that many of them had also become less white. The Lake City neighborhood, for example, “Lost 439 white people, a loss of 6 percent, while adding 1,384 Black people, almost doubling the population over the same period. Were the white people ‘forced out’ by a degentrifying wave of Black in migration from the south end of the city, people ‘displaced’ by gentrifying forces in the south end?”

Who knows? It isn’t worth spending the time trying to find out, either, because what is important is that in a growing city, people should have freedom of movement regardless of race. In fact, a diverse population depends on having many choices of housing typology and price, something only accomplished when there is an abundant supply.

What about segregation? The argument that single-family zoning is racist has gained cache among liberals and the so-called Yes In My Back Yard (YIMBY) movement. But is a bungalow or war box racist? That is, can we ascribe racist intent to a typology? Of course not. Houses aren’t racist, people are.

The argument that single-family zoning caused segregation in housing is simply false. But zoning—a government regulatory scheme intended to segregate uses—did help facilitate racism. I’ve examined a study of the old redlining maps from the Home Owners Loan Association (HOLC) done by National Geographic, and what is clear is that the HOLC was all about risk avoidance. The red lines they established were race-based, assuming places where there were a concentration of black people and immigrants were risky—places where nobody would want to live. This meant that a white family that wanted to move to one of those neighborhoods wouldn’t get a loan. What kept black people from moving to neighborhoods with white people? There were covenants, enforced by the government, on titles, preventing the sale of homes in those areas to black people.

All of this was reinforced by zoning, which segregated single-family uses to one area and excluded any other uses, such as commercial or apartments. The story of racial segregation by neighborhood is really a story of how government regulation aided and abetted underlying bias and prejudice, reducing housing production and the free movement of people. Zoning kept rental housing at bay, a kind of housing that people with less money can afford, and out of single-family neighborhoods. Had zoning not existed, the red lines and covenants would have failed to keep black families out of white neighborhoods when they moved into new apartments. But new apartments weren’t allowed because of government regulation— namely, zoning codes.

The Atlantic article starts to connect these dots, in this paragraph:

America has a long history of normalizing segregation. Some forms of segregation may appear innocuous, such as separating residential from business districts or keeping certain types of homes together (for example, this neighborhood for the large, single-family homes and this other one for public housing). These assumptions have been encoded in court decisions that officially deem multifamily dwellings “nuisances.”

If we want to create more housing, the best thing we can do is drop the barriers for developing, financing, building, and operating housing. The most onerous of these barriers is zoning, a bedeviling morass of rules, regulations, fees, and taxes that do nothing but push up costs for new housing, increasing prices and rents for newcomers.

Zoning normalized segregation; we should abolish it. We can keep building codes, which are complicated enough, but ensure health and safety, which are things worth paying for. But the 20th-century solution for the 19th-century problem of keeping things and people whom other people don’t like at bay is outdated, and is smothering innovation and integration. Both progressives and conservatives should be able to embrace the abolition of zoning codes across the country.

Roger Valdez is director of the Center for Housing Economics, a nonprofit housing research and advocacy organization, and a research fellow at the Foundation for Equal Opportunity (FREOPP). 

The New Urbanism series is supported by the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation. Follow New Urbs on Twitter for a feed dedicated to TAC’s coverage of cities, urbanism, and place.

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