How to Stop Worrying (So Much) about Exclusionary Zoning: An Invitation

Editor’s Note: This post by David Imbroscio (University of Louisville) is the first of three posts based on the Exclusionary Zoning Colloquy published in 2019. The entire colloquy is available here. Check back soon for responses from Katherine Levine Einstein (Boston University) and Edward Goetz (University of Minnesota).

Zoning is hot in America.  Everyone from recent presidential candidates on down seem to be talking about it.  On Twitter, to which I – personally –conscientiously object, it’s apparently the subject of the “shoutiest” of debates. Thoughtful and serious activist-scholars are publishing important pieces in opinion-shaping popular magazines, while a spate of scholarly studies increasingly appear in leading academic journals, including Urban Affairs Review.

It is within this milieu that I started to think seriously about why I was so troubled by the widespread and fervent problematizing of zoning that, ostensibly at least, has “exclusionary” effects.  Or, more precisely, what I found most unsettling was the almost evangelical crusade to severely loosen it — what I call the Anti-Exclusionary Zoning (Anti-EZ) Project. With disturbing images of Orwell’s Two Minutes Hate seeping into my head, I was struck by the visceral nature of this discourse, filled as it is with the darker of our emotions rather than clear-eyed analysis and careful reasoning. 

The key issue it seemed was that, for those scholars deeply committed to the pursuit of social (or housing) justice, the idea of affluent (often White) people walling themselves off from poorer people (often of color) evokes – almost instinctively – revulsion and recoil (even if many such scholars themselves dwell in places where zoning is used to such exclusionary effect).  And for good reason – it stands as a great affront to our deepest intuitions about justice to allow those privileged by wealth and power, as well as skin color, to exclude those ‘others’ lacking those privileges.

The main point of my intervention into the EZ discourse is to ask those among us committed deeply to housing justice to “rethink” this standpoint.  Specifically, rather than acting viscerally on instinct and emotion, I ask readers to step back — and with an open, analytical, and critical mind — ponder the effort to loosen it.  My own attempt to do so generated research pointing strongly to this conclusion: we can rightly say of the Anti-EZ Project’s quest to eliminate EZ what JamesMadison famously said of the destruction of liberty to address the problem of faction — the cure is clearly worse than the disease. More specifically, while the practice of EZ is without a doubt often a manifestation of the ubiquitous and enduring presence of racism in America, my research found that the Project to eliminate it inflicts an even greater degree of racialized harm upon the disadvantaged.

Careful (and fair) readers of my intervention will understand that, as just alluded to, I do not gainsay that EZ can exacerbate the racism (and classism) so endemic and enduring in American society.  And I also recognize that especially galling to prevailing liberal sensibilities is that EZ’s deployment is at times galvanized by contemptible motives rooted in irrational fears that are racist and classist to the core.

So, despite my article’s Strangelovian title, I have no “love” for EZ; instead, the key takeaway from my research is to lay bare the moral toxicity of the effort to eliminate it.  Specifically, I found that this Anti-EZ Project embraces a set of pernicious normative values giving rise to sociopolitical outcomes far more detrimental to social justice than EZ’s actual adverse effects.  Thus my plea is that we come to accept it, and realize that EZ itself is far less our enemy than the policy agenda promulgated by those devoted to its destruction.

I am painfully aware that my findings might be hard to swallow for many inculcated by more than a half century of writing calling out EZ for severe condemnation (a list that includes close colleagues whom I greatly respect).  To them – and all others who are quite understandably incredulous — I write this post as an invitation to read my full intervention, asking only that you do so with – as noted above — an open, analytical, and critical mind.

As a preface let me point out that, if you support the Anti-EZ Project you are in the “good” company of the illustrious real-estate-developer-in-chief.  Just last year, President Trump signed an executive order establishing a commission to recommend ways to cut regulations that create exclusionary barriers to affordable housing (by raising its price), including, first and foremost, “overly restrictive zoning and growth management controls.”  This measure alone, I believe, should provoke “us” (those concerned with housing justice) to at least be suspicious of the Anti-EZ Project.

With this suspicion as a prompt, I invite readers to engage my article.  Put colloquially, in this research I wanted to look under the hood – analytically – of the Anti-EZ Project.  When I did, first uncovered was the degree to which it is steeped in both the theory and practice of neoliberalism.  In fact, the neoliberal logic behind its strong emphasis on deregulation in land use is remarkably analogous to neoliberalism’s antagonism to labor regulations like the minimum wage.

The second major finding of my research revealed how profoundly infected the Anti-EZ Project is with a profound skepticism about the value of democracy – specifically grassroots empowerment and democratic control of local land use (or what scholars and activists call The Right to the City).  In fact, in diametric opposition to the traditional “growth machine” formulation, grassroots groupsfighting to preserve use values are usually the villains in the Anti-EZ story, while the heroes are often profit-seeking developers pursuing exchange values.  Accordingly, what is prescriptively called for by the Anti-EZ Project is the same undemocratic cudgel – state preemption — that is currently being used by the right-wing to stymiesocial justice throughout much of the US.  Once again, this should, at a minimum, raise suspicions.  In specific terms, as I explain in my article, the use of state preemption to strip land-use powers from affluent communities sounds like a great idea until one realizes that the powers of vulnerable neighborhoods would also be stripped, leaving them even more defenseless against ongoing (usually racialized) dispossessions.

While some may construe my intervention as giving affluent, White-dominated suburbs license to maintain their privilege, what I am arguing for instead is a different means by which to attack that privilege. To give up the fight against EZ is not to give up the fight for social and racial justice; rather, it is the prerequisite to employing a more serious strategy to achieve that justice. Since the Anti-EZ Project has achieved next to nothing in almost a half century, it is past time we consider more radical alternatives to it (such as measures advocated by groups like the Movement for Black Lives).

 In the midst of the current housing crisis, it is imperative that we rethink EZ in the ways called for by my intervention.  As noted above, the erstwhile developer occupying the White House seems to want to exploit this crisis to push for the fundamentally neoliberal and anti-democratic measures of the Anti-EZ Project and its growth machine allies.  Several Democratic primary candidates for president also endorsed significant housing measures as well,  some of which could inform future responses to the housing crisis by progressives.  In evaluating these alternatives it is important we not be seduced or deluded – or, more precisely, conned – by the false promises of the Anti-EZ Project, with its deregulatory and disempowering pro-market “reform” of housing regulations.  As I sketch in my article, what instead deserves the support of all who care deeply about housing and racial justice is, actually, the polar opposite: the empowerment of grassroots democratic forces to fight neoliberalism by employing a full range of public/community-controlled regulatory powers toward the construction of a robust affordable housing, pro-equity urban policy agenda.

Read the UAR article here.

Photo by Tom Rumble on Unsplash

Author Biography

David Imbroscio is professor of Political Science and Urban Affairs at the University of Louisville.  He is author or editor of six books, including Urban America Reconsidered: Alternatives for Governance and Policy (Cornell University Press).  Professor Imbroscio is a past recipient of the College of Arts and Sciences Award for Outstanding Scholarship, Research, and Creative Activity at the University of Louisville.