[Essay originally written for PAM 3250, “Neighborhoods, Housing, and Urban Policy” at Cornell University, taught by Professor Laura Tach, December 2019.]
Many issues are embedded in America’s neighborhoods and housing system, threatening not only the wellbeing of individual residents but of whole communities. Although these problems are diverse in nature and attributable to a number of root causes, many of them can be traced back to basic issues of inequity. In today’s communities, inequity within both neighborhoods and within whole metropolitan regions and housing markets is fostered by exclusionary zoning practices. Therefore, because it lies at the root or exacerbates other neighborhood and housing issues such as accessibility and affordability, exclusionary zoning habits and practices are the most pressing problem facing American neighborhoods today.
Inequality in America’s neighborhoods has been built and maintained throughout the nation’s history of de jure segregation, especially in the era of suburbanization. While the federal government provided incentives, aid, and other forms of persuasion to white families to leave urban rental units and move into single-family suburban homes, other rules, regulations, and precedents kept non-white families out of new suburban areas and in deteriorating urban neighborhoods. The segregation of America’s metropolitan areas on an urban-suburban basis was intensified during the New Deal era, in which homeownership (of single-family suburban homes) was heavily promoted, yet explicitly excluded minority families through discriminatory mortgage lending and development lending practices. This segregation aggravated inequalities as suburbanization was escalated and the central city faced disinvestment and decay. The American habit of urging homeownership grew increasingly problematic as subprime and predatory lending practices began to target low-income urban families, leading to high rates of foreclosures and further city neighborhood deterioration. These processes were not accidental. Federal policies have actively persuaded American citizens that owning a home in a suburb is preferable to renting a unit in an urban area: this has become a self-fulfilling prophecy, leading to disinvestment in urban areas and a lack of rental units, especially affordable rental units, in desirable neighborhoods.
Today, lower income families, which are disproportionately minorities, are kept away from suburban neighborhoods via a number of zoning practices that effectively price them out — a process known as exclusionary zoning. These zoning practices raise the cost of housing in an area by preventing multi-family developments and dictating low densities through enforcement of policies such as height limits, street setback minimums, required parking, and large lot size requirements. Such practices reduce the overall available housing supply and, thus, increase prices in the area. Exclusionary zoning has a polarizing effect on the two extremes of housing consumption: luxurious mansions versus a lack of even decent shelter. This has led to a continuation of the conditions described above, with segregation on the basis of class often meaning racial segregation as well. Even today, America’s neighborhoods are largely separate and unequal.
These divisions have fostered inequity in access to amenities and resources, which are generally concentrated in higher income neighborhoods. Numerous studies have proven that the quality of neighborhood environment, especially the availability and quality of services, directly influences a number of important outcomes for individuals and families. The quality of public schools, child care centers, medical care centers, healthy food sources, and other services all vary among neighborhoods. When these services are unavailable or of lower quality in lower-income neighborhoods facing disinvestment and deterioration, it can be especially detrimental to those families without the transportation options to access them elsewhere. Neighborhoods are also important for their ability to provide residents with a reliable social network of friends, colleagues, and other neighbors. Having such a network allows for a number of socioeconomic benefits, such as connections for employment or inexpensive childcare. The ability of residents to form these networks is threatened by exclusionary zoning in both lower- and higher-income communities. The formation of geographically-based social networks is dependent on resident stability — if residents are constantly being forced to move from neighborhood to neighborhood, or even block to block, it is more difficult to build and maintain close connections with neighbors. Therefore, when exclusionary zoning causes decreased availability of rental units (especially affordable rental units), and rent increases force residents to move and find new affordable accommodation, stability is directly threatened. The formation of social networks is also contingent on a lively public realm that allows for interaction between neighbors. Such a setting is not encouraged by low-density neighborhoods, which keep residents secluded in their private lives due to a lack of public and shared spaces — thus, exclusionary zoning practices also keep even affluent suburban neighborhoods away from the benefits of strong neighborhood social networks.
Where exclusionary zoning has allowed for the growth of inequities between neighborhoods, especially within metropolitan areas, policy should aim, very simply, to encourage communities to be more inclusive. First, there should be a softening of zoning regulations such as height maximums, setback requirements, maximum lot coverage, and parking requirements in order to allow for the growth of higher-density neighborhoods. Policy must acknowledge that the features that allow for density (mixing of uses, widening of sidewalks, etc.) are becoming increasingly desirable for modern renters and buyers. However, sudden increase in a neighborhood’s desirability can lead to gentrification, which is often linked with increase in median income, decline in proportion of racial minorities, and large increases in rent and home prices — thus reinforcing class- and race-based segregation and reversing prior efforts to create a more inclusive and equitable neighborhood. Therefore, attention should be paid within policy to ensure that the negative consequences of gentrification are minimized.
The impacts of gentrification can be weathered by ensuring there is space for residents of a variety of incomes in the neighborhood. Contained mixed-income developments are only capable of reaching a very small proportion of low-income urban developments, and the construction of such developments often means a net decrease of overall affordable units (especially in the case of public housing conversion, such as through the HOPE VI program). Therefore, policy should focus not on the construction of contained developments, but rather on the disbursement of opportunities for affordable housing throughout the whole neighborhood, thus facilitating a natural mixing of incomes. One method of increasing overall affordable units is through inclusionary zoning, which requires developers to include a number of affordable units within new buildings for eligible families and individuals. Inclusionary zoning policies should include offsets, which gives benefits to developers in exchange for constructing buildings with affordable units. If offsets are not included, a neighborhood runs the risk of disincentivizing new developments, which lowers overall housing stock and consequently lowers affordability. Luckily, offsets can take the form of zoning exceptions on height or setback minimums — this allows for construction of more overall units, which not only increases housing stock in the neighborhood but facilitates the very density that often allows for an overall better neighborhood. Another policy which would allow for families to better find affordable housing in the improving neighborhood is the implementation of rules and regulations that would require landlords to accept vouchers from low-income individuals and families seeking housing. Landlords should not be able to discriminate on the basis of income and keep qualified families from finding a unit. Regulations must also ensure that landlords are not charging higher rents for voucher holders or engaging in other discriminatory practices due to prejudice or a lack of willingness to house low-income families or to participate in inspections and other bureaucratic pathways associated with vouchers. In addition, policies should aim to provide aid to the large proportion of the urban poor that is “hard-to-house,” including those facing barriers such as medical conditions or disabilities.
In general, policies working to facilitate neighborhood inclusivity should actively look to make renting an attractive option, as past policies have actively persuaded the American public that ownership is, for better or for worse, the only reasonable choice. Developers should be provided financial incentives to construct, invest in, and improve rental housing. Likewise, prospective residents can be encouraged to rent with opportunities for tax benefits and savings, improvement and upkeep of unit quality, and increased control over their own units. If zoning barriers are broken to allow multi-family rentals within traditionally affluent single-family neighborhoods, not only does available housing stock and density increase, but perceptions that renting is a low-income last-resort that have been implanted via the federal homeownership agenda are dissolved. This makes middle- and higher-income residents more willing to seek rentals in urban areas needing repopulation, and destigmatizes renting for lower-income families who have no other choice. When higher-quality rental developments are added and maintained in traditionally declining urban neighborhoods, it has the potential to reduce the decades-long cycle of suburban flight and urban disinvestment. This will result in further revitalization of communities, which reinforces a more positive cycle of neighborhood security and investment.
Housing and neighborhood policy in America, especially on the federal scale, is tainted with a history of discrimination and exclusion. However, the nation is presently facing the opportunity to actively foster inclusivity and equity. Policy should aim to combat the impacts of exclusionary zoning by softening density-preventing regulations, encouraging natural mixing of incomes via inclusion of affordable units, and combating the harmful impacts of American homeownership agenda with a new rental agenda.
Bertolet, D. & Durning, A. (2016). Inclusionary zoning: the most promising — or counter-productive — of all housing policies. Sightline Institute. Retrieved from https://www.sightline.org/2016/11/29/inclusionary-zoning-the-most-promising-or-counter-productive-of-all-housing-policies/
Bratt, R.G. et. al. (2006). Why a right to housing is needed and makes sense: editors’ introduction. A Right to Housing: Foundation for a New Social Agenda. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
Ellen, I.G. & Turner, A.A. (1997). Does neighborhood matter? Assessing recent evidence. Housing Policy Debate, 8(4), pp. 833–866.
Fullilove, M.T. (2004). Root Shock. New York: Random House, Inc.
Rigsby, E. A. (2016). Understanding exclusionary zoning and its impact on concentrated poverty. The Century Foundation. Retrieved from https://tcf.org/content/facts/understanding-exclusionary-zoning-impact-concentrated-poverty/?session=1
Rothstein, R. (2017). Own your own home. Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America. New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation.
Grant, B. (2003). What is gentrification? NPR. Retrieved from http://archive.pov.org/flagwars/what-is-gentrification/
Grigsby, W.G. & Bourassa, S.C. (2004). Section 8: the time for fundamental program change? Housing Policy Debate, 15(4), pp. 805–834
Joseph, M.L. (2006). Is mixed income development an antidote to urban poverty? Housing Policy Debate, 17(2), pp. 209–234.
Shlay, A.B. (2006). Low income homeownership: American dream or delusion? Urban Studies, 43(3), pp. 511–531.