Take a look out of your window. You’ll probably see homes or apartment buildings, fairly similar to your own. What rules determine who lives there? This formation of individuals wasn’t the result of pure market forces. Neighborhoods are shaped by bureaucratic decisions, social norms, and the changing factors of market demand. Since the early 20th century, city planners have developed comprehensive plans to envision or preserve communities. These plans are carried out through zoning ordinances, which are developed by planners and voted on by the city council. Zoning protected residential areas from incompatible uses, such as manufacturing, but it could also be wielded as a tool for segregation.
Words like “harmonious” and “congenial” were historically used to characterize desirable development and shape policy. Inevitably, fostering community through sameness meant racial segregation and the systemic exclusion of minorities from economic opportunity. Outside of the American south, these policies were dressed up in progressive language that hid their concern with race and class. Any attempt to fix the housing shortage must be aware of how this language is used today. Policy still shapes how we build our neighborhoods, and residential zoning laws are being used to preserve enclaves and cut out specific groups. Ending single-family zoning to create opportunities for lower-income families in a necessary first step in dismantling this system.
In 1924, the National Association of Real Estate Brokers made an addition to their bylaws. Realtors, they wrote, had a duty to avoid damaging the character of a neighborhood. On the surface, this sounds like a reasonable directive. Yet these “best practices” were actually a sanitized call for redlining, which had been taking place for years. Red lines were literally drawn on maps of American cities to demarcate areas where companies would not provide services, including mortgages and insurance. This was largely done on the basis of race, denying African American families the opportunity to own property in certain areas. The practice had been in place for decades, irreparably damaging the generational wealth of minority families.
Mortgage brokers, realtors, and developers actively worked to prevent the inclusion of individuals “whose presence will clearly be detrimental to property values in that neighborhood.” Today, 11 million Americans live in formerly-redlined areas. Several Democratic presidential candidates, such as Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and South Bend, IN Mayor Pete Buttigieg, want to use redlining maps produced by the government-sponsored Home Owners Loan Corporation (HOLC) to target assistance and undo the damage caused by housing segregation. According to research conducted at Brookings, only 8 percent of black Americans live in these zones today, as demographic shifts have occurred since the era of redlining. In many cities, however, the effects have endured. Generally, redlined areas have a lower median income, older housing stock, and rents which are lower in absolute terms but make up a higher portion of resident’s income. These conditions increase the likelihood of cost-burdening, when families put more than 30 percent of their monthly income towards housing. However, the HOLC maps do not provide a comprehensive blueprint for segregation. In some areas, no maps survive, though segregation is obvious. In others, populations have drastically shifted. In Sioux City, Iowa, only 1 percent of formerly redlined residents are black.
Bringing justice to deliberately mistreated populations should be a priority for the next president. Yet bolstering formerly-redlined areas does not strike at the heart of the issue. The principal problem is not poor housing stock or lack of credit. These are the results of discriminatory policy, and working backwards from flawed maps is unlikely to result in meaningful change. Instead, zoning laws should be next on the chopping block. A 1944 brochure suggested homeowners make sure that they have “adequate protection against encroachments” to preserve a “refined residential atmosphere”. The same protections against encroachments are at work today, though redlining was ended with the Home Mortgage Disclosure Act in 1976.
Wealthy Americans have been able to use local government to pick their neighbors, limiting economic opportunity to satisfy their own prejudices and unfairly inflate the value of their homes. Even on a very local level, residents can lobby their legislators and pull in law firms. A town could require one acre of land for a single-family home, but 70 acres for multifamily construction. It is legal for city planners to write ordinances that make it incredibly difficult to build denser units, with lengthy approval processes that raise costs up to 30 percent. Some towns even offer to purchase land so that it cannot be used for affordable housing. A radical change in zoning laws is needed.
In Oregon, House Bill 2001 passed the state legislature in 2019 and upended local authority over housing decisions. The bill eliminates single-family zoning in cities with over 10,000 residents by requiring them to allow middle housing in all areas within the urban growth boundary. Middle housing is defined by the bill as quadplexes, triplexes, duplexes, and cottage clusters. Some designers have coined the term “missing middle housing” to describe the sort of development Oregon is trying to encourage. The goal is to create more options for people who cannot afford a single-family home, or whose lifestyles do not align with the traditional path of homeownership. If the demand exists, developers will step in, and neighborhoods will gradually diversify as more people gain access to them. It removes a significant barrier to affordable housing and prevents residents from lobbying local legislatures, chipping away at the legacy of redlining.
Because the Oregon bill is so recent, it is impossible to know how it will play out. On the one hand, it could allow more families to build generational wealth through housing security. On the other hand, the bill might lead to greater disparities as developers follow the money. One realtor, interviewed by Oregon Public Broadcasting, said that most of her clients were looking for single-family homes. Developers might choose to invest in high-end duplexes to compensate for their comparative undesirability, demolishing single-family homes in the process. Mid-sized city government officials also expressed concern that the bill was a solution for larger urban areas, like Portland.
Sharon Konopa is the mayor of Albany, a city of 53,145 people in northwest Oregon. In her interview with Oregon Public Broadcasting, Konopa expressed worry that the forced inclusion of middle housing would “erode” single-family neighborhoods. This is a poorly-cloaked attempt to argue that the carefully curated zones of the wealthy could be damaged by the appearance of duplexes. Vague, melodramatic language like this is of the same kind that was used to promote redlining and racial discrimination in housing policy in the past. The demand for middle housing can’t be met by any increase in supply, according to this line of thought, because housing affordability is of less importance than the character of neighborhoods.
Undoing the damage of redlining means recognizing how the same racist, classist language and sentiments are preserved in modern zoning policies. Oregon’s bill is a radical step in the right direction, and other municipalities struggling with housing shortages should take note. If cities can’t make the decision for themselves, they may be forced to by the state.
Photo: Image via jqpubliq (Flickr)