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Opinion: Restrictive zoning laws perpetuate neighborhood segregation

Jamie Fogel and Zachary Ackerman

We grew up in an expensive neighborhood. We played roller hockey on our safe street and could walk to great schools. We never thought of ourselves as racist and were raised to invite diversity. But, over the years, we have come to realize that we were unwitting participants in a central tenet of systemic racism: policy-induced housing segregation. It is time for people like us to stop building walls and open our communities to everyone.

In the U.S., where you grow up has a large impact on your future: it affects your income, health, education and likelihood of incarceration. This is because your neighborhood gives you access to schools, peers, more or less pollution and varying levels of police presence. Anyone who can’t afford to live in a neighborhood is locked out of the opportunities it provides. 

Zoning laws segregate people into those are wealthy enough to afford expensive single-family homes and those who are not, the authors write.

So, let’s return to our expensive neighborhood. Its streets are lined with manicured lawns on lots with single-family homes. Why? Why don’t you see duplexes or apartment buildings? Surely, as a nice neighborhood, people must be clambering to move in.  Many parents would be willing to accept a smaller apartment in order to send their kids to good schools, enjoy well-kept parks and walk along safe streets. Why then are there so many neighborhoods with zero multi-unit homes? The answer is, across broad swathes of our cities, suburbs and towns, it is illegal to build anything other than a single-family home.

Cities have laws about what can be built where, called “zoning laws.” These laws segregate the types of housing that can be built: single-family homes here; apartments and townhouses there. This also segregates people: those wealthy enough to afford expensive single-family homes live in some neighborhoods; those who can’t, live in poorer neighborhoods. Since wealth and race are highly correlated in America, this also exacerbates racial segregation.

Residential segregation is not an accident. Although those who advocate for strict zoning laws today may not be motivated by racial animosity, we must be blunt: The widespread use of restrictive zoning laws in America is rooted in racism. Historically, many neighborhoods in the U.S. were segregated by law.

Throughout the 20th century, as one set of segregationist laws were ruled unconstitutional, cities found new ways to keep white neighborhoods white. By the 1960s, many municipalities realized that although they couldn’t discriminate explicitly, they could do so implicitly by using zoning laws to ban the higher-density housing that poorer and minority residents could afford.

For example, in reliably liberal Ann Arbor, where we grew up, an article from the local newspaper in 1970 notes that some voters opposed greater density  “because they desired large one-acre lots which would be too expensive for Negroes to purchase.”

There is a deep irony that many of the neighborhoods with the most yard signs stating “immigrants welcome here” or “thank you, essential workers” are exactly the same neighborhoods that ban the types of housing that many immigrants and essential workers can afford.

Fortunately, the solutions are local and you can make a real difference. Send emails to your city council and tell them that you support greater diversity of housing in your neighborhood. Research local elections and vote for officials who will promote inclusive housing policies.

Recognize that the choices your community makes may create barriers for others seeking a better life. Don’t let your desire for a little less noise and traffic contribute to segregation. Centuries of injustice will not be defeated without some discomfort.

If we are willing to accept a little change, we can be part of the solution to systemic racism.

Jamie Fogel is a Ph.D. candidate in economics at the University of Michigan and a former researcher at the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston and Harvard University Opportunity Insights. Zachary Ackerman is a city council member and planning commissioner in Ann Arbor.