The Experience of Racial and Ethnic Minorities With Zoning in the United States

Scholars (Rothstein, 2017; Whittemore, 2017a) have argued that prevalent zoning practices have had two major detrimental impacts on African American and other communities of color in the United States: they have presented an additional barrier (on top of racial covenants, lending discrimination, racial steering, and so on) to people of color’s entry into predominantly white neighborhoods, and they have frequently led to the disproportionate clustering of industrial uses within communities of color as a by-product of protecting white communities from these uses. Meanwhile, prevailing theory holds that the principal purpose of zoning in the US has been to assure social and economic stability in residential neighborhoods. According to this theory, homeowners elect legislators who make zoning decisions deflecting disamenities from their neighborhoods, whether these are traffic-generating commercial uses, noisy or polluting industrial uses, or apartments housing lower-income renters who would take advantage of local schools and other services without providing adequate tax revenue (Fischel, 2001, 2004).

This narrative has not taken into account, however, the extent to which people of color have themselves been regarded as disamenities, despite many historical cases in which zoning or other land use restrictions have targeted people of color or uses associated with them for exclusion from white areas. These cases include limitations on the location of laundries in California cities in the late 19th century, which were predominantly enforced against Chinese laundry operators (Kosman, 1993; Young, 2004). Baltimore and other southern cities employed racial zoning in the early 20th century, which through a variety of mechanisms sought the separation of white and African American residential areas for the stated purposes of protecting property values and preventing conflict and disease. Despite the Supreme Court ruling against racial zoning in 1917, many southern cities persisted in the enforcement of these Jim Crow statutes into the 1940s (Silver, 1991)—Birmingham, Alabama, persisted until 1951 (Connelly, 2005).

The Supreme Court ruled against the enforceability' of racial covenants— private restrictions written into deeds that forbade sale or rental of property to various minority groups—in 1948, although homeowners and developers continued to publicize racial preferences and pursue more informal means of their enforcement (Brooks & Rose, 2013). Furthermore, homeowners and developers wishing to exclude minorities from their communities could

Racial Bias in Zoning 203 turn to zoning, which they could use to restrict almost all types of residential development: by 1967, suburban New York jurisdictions had restricted 99.2% of all undeveloped, residentially zoned land to single-family construction (Downs, 1973, p. 49). Such barriers served as imperfect, although effective, barriers to minority move-in.

Certainly local governments develop effectively exclusionary practices to prevent traffic congestion and for other reasons having apparently nothing to do with race. However, it is not at all challenging to use less controversial antipathy toward traffic or environmental degradation to mask underlying prejudice toward any undesirable neighbors (Clingermayer, 2004). Legislators or neighborhood activists may also play to less controversial fears of “subsidized housing” or “welfare cases” (Danielson, 1976, p. 90) to achieve exclusionary measures. The US Supreme Court (1977), meanwhile, ruled that absent explicitly discriminatory intentions, effectively discriminatory impacts of zoning against people of color cannot constitute a violation of the equal protection clause.3

There are also many apparent cases of industry and communities of color coming to share the same neighborhood due to local planning and zoning policies that prioritized the protection of white neighborhoods. This is especially problematic because it disproportionately accrues health risks, such as lead exposure or air pollution, to groups less equipped to deal with them (Bullard, 1994). Merely designating land for industrial use can also undermine the investments of homeowners in the vicinity (De Vor &c De Groot, 2011). In the early 20th century, planners in Torrance, California, accommodated industry’s demands for cheap labor by allowing Mexican workers’ construction of a low-income ghetto in the midst of the city’s factory district (Sidawi, 1997). Austin, Texas, zoned its plan-designated “Negro District” as an industrial area (Greenberger, 1997). Later on in the 20th century, African American homebuyers in South Phoenix saw their investments wither as the city expanded zoning for industrial use in their neighborhood (Bolin, Grineski, & Collins, 2005). Rabin (1989) documented numerous cases of rezoning African American residential areas for industrial use, a practice he called “expulsive zoning” because it so often resulted in redevelopment and displacement of the rezoned communities. Maantay (2002) showed how later 20th-century rezonings in New York City discouraged industrial use in many white working-class or gentrifying neighborhoods but maintained or encouraged it within minority neighborhoods.

With the exception of Maantay’s (2002) work, what remains largely lacking in studies of racial bias in zoning is an indication of how unique the treatment of communities of color has been. Zoning for industry within an African American or Latino neighborhood does not exclude the possibility that some white areas, perhaps of lower income or with low homeownership rates, may have been treated similarly. Likewise, it may be difficult to parse out any racial motivation behind zoning practices where explicit discussion of prejudice is lacking and only the racially neutral property interestsof homeowners are made apparent. The study presented here went about detecting racial bias indirectly: by assessing the racial, income, and homeownership characteristics of areas where different types of zoning decisions happened in order to find the degree to which these decisions’ geographies may be associated with race vis-à-vis these other factors.

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