Feds fight for fair housing
In November of this year, the U.S. departments of Justice (DOJ) and Housing and Urban Development (HUD) released a statement on local land use laws. The statement was about how the Fair Housing Act of 1968 (and its amendments) apply to city laws governing land use. If a city passes a zoning law without any intent to discriminate, but the law happens to have a discriminatory effect on people of a certain race (or people with disabilities, or any other protected class), then the law might violate the Fair Housing Act. Specifically, a “discriminatory effect” happens when a law predictably has a disparate impact on a group of people, or if it causes segregated housing patterns. Without proof that the law serves a substantial, legitimate, non-discriminatory interest (that can’t be served by non-discriminatory means), the local law runs afoul of the Fair Housing Act.
It turns out that there is a wildly popular land-use control that appears race-neutral but in effect causes racial segregation: R1, the low-density residential zoning district.
Academics have been researching the discriminatory and segregative effects of land-use controls for a while now. Take, for instance, this paper that Rolf Pendall published in the Journal of the American Planning Association in 2000, “Local Land Use Regulation and the Chain of Exclusion.” In the paper, Pendall concluded (in agreement with other studies) that “low-density-only zoning is an institution that opposes the needs of disadvantaged groups and persons.” Pendall did some empirical work showing that some land-use controls (including low-density zoning) reliably exclude Black and Hispanic populations from neighborhoods. He also did some conceptual work explaining how some zoning causes racial exclusion. He lists four links in the chain of exclusion:
- Slower growth
- Shift toward single-family, away from multifamily
- Fewer rental units
- Lower rental affordability
Exclusionary zoning doesn’t always cause each of the four links, and you don’t need all four links to cause racial exclusion. You can see that by looking at an example in Minneapolis.
Exclusionary zoning in Minneapolis
I used to live in Lowry Hill, in an old apartment building just west of Hennepin Avenue. It turns out most of the apartment buildings west of Hennepin are old, because in the 1960s, when Minneapolis first invented single-family-only zoning districts, Hennepin was a dividing line between stricter zoning on the west and more liberal zoning on the east. (Hennepin was also a dividing line on redlining maps.) I looked at Census data (using Social Explorer, which is free through the Hennepin County Library) to see how exclusionary zoning has played out just west of Hennepin Avenue.
After the 1960 zoning code went into effect, developers built more housing east of Hennepin than to the west. When you look at the housing stock, you can see evidence of construction booms in the 1960s and 1970s in Loring Park, Lowry Hill East, and North Whittier. In contrast there are approximately zero housing units standing today from the 1960s in the East Isles neighborhood. (I should note that this data shows still-existing housing by the year it was built, and it is not an exhaustive record of construction by decade.)
By preserving the housing stock, the low-density zoning caused a major demographic shift in Lowry Hill and East Isles: the portion of renters there declined from more than 70 percent in 1970 to around 50 percent in 2010. The neighborhoods east of Hennepin have been consistently 80-95% renters since the 1960s. This high concentration of renters is what you might expect for urban neighborhoods bounded by commercial and transit corridors that are within walking distance to downtown.
Today, the neighborhoods west of Hennepin lack affordable rental housing. Compared to the areas just east of Hennepin, there are very few units in the range of $600-800 a month. There’s no mystery why: many of these reasonably priced units are the two-and-a-half story walk-up apartments built east of Hennepin in the 1960s and 1970s. The 1960 zoning code restricted this type of housing in most areas west of Hennepin.
The data show considerable racial exclusion west of Hennepin Avenue. As the Twin Cities have become more diverse in the last 50 years, the neighborhoods just east of Hennepin have become more integrated. Today, 15 to 30 percent of the neighborhood residents are people of color. The strict zoning west of Hennepin has acted as a bulwark against people of color moving into the neighborhood. The residents of East Isles and Lowry Hill are about 90 percent non-Hispanic White.
In a true natural experiment, we could observe the exclusionary effects of low-density zoning in a part of town with strict zoning on one side of the street and no exclusionary zoning at all on the other side. That’s not what we have here. The neighborhoods east of Hennepin were fighting like heck to catch up to the low-density ideal in Lowry Hill and East Isles. As evidence of that, I’d submit the history of the Great Lowry Hill East Downzoning of 1974. In addition, consider the official strategy of the Whittier Alliance to “increase the inventory of single family homes” and to “discourage the addition of designated affordable, supportive, and transitional housing in the Whittier neighborhood.” Given the exclusionary efforts east of Hennepin, the effects of exclusionary zoning must be even more severe than shown by these data.
We need local leadership
As I mentioned at the start, the DOJ and HUD have said they’re going to fight exclusionary zoning. As you might have noticed, there was recently a national election and the guy who’s probably going to be in charge of HUD in six weeks is of a different mind than the current head of HUD. Ben Carson, a retired neurosurgeon with no experience in government administration or housing policy, wrote last year that fair housing is a “failed socialist experiment.” The federal impetus to reform exclusionary zoning laws won’t last long.
So it’s up to us. We need local leaders who are willing to look critically at our familiar land use laws and find a way forward. We need people with the imagination, smarts, and courage to find a way to uproot exclusionary zoning, a vestige of redlining. It’s the only way that we can build a more affordable, less segregated city.