Democracy, Exclusion, and White Supremacy: How Should We Think About Exclusionary Zoning?

Editor’s Note: This post by Edward Goetz (University of Minnesota) is the last of three posts based on the Exclusionary Zoning Colloquy published in 2019. The entire colloquy is available here. If you missed the first post by David Imbroscio (University of Louisville) you can read that here, and the second post by Katherine Levine Einstein here.

I will lead off here as I do in my article, with a thank you to David Imbroscio for his important work on dispersal policy and on the assumptions and presumptions underlying the mobility and opportunity paradigm. In addition, I will note here, as I did in my full response, that the article he has written to generate this particulate conversation contains a number of elements with which I completely agree. But there is no fun and little interest to be generated by agreements.  Here’s a brief summary of two points that I think he got wrong.

1. The proposition that opposition to exclusionary zoning is “steeped in both the theory and practice of neoliberalism.”

The support offered for this proposition is that opposition to exclusionary zoning is an embrace of deregulation and deregulation is a central tenet of neoliberalism. But, opposition to exclusionary zoning is about barrier reduction, not regulatory reduction. It is about different land use regulations not fewer of them. It is about replacing the over-reliance on single family zoning with zoning for more multi-family housing, and more mixed-use development. It is about regulations aiming at higher density housing, not low-density housing. It is about regulating minimum densities, not maximums. It is about replacing regulations requiring two- and three-car garages with regulations that encourage on street parking and incentivize transit use. And so on. Regulations can facilitate affordability as much as they can discourage it, and there is little mystery about how to fashion regulations that accomplish one or the other objective. The anti-exclusionary zoning movement is an attempt to modify regulations so that the objective of affordability and inclusion is served.  

A secondary support for the proposition that opposition to exclusionary zoning is neoliberal is that it is possible to name some prominent neoliberals who write in opposition to exclusionary zoning. And when these neolibs write in opposition to exclusionary zoning they typically do so in the name of deregulation. All this proves, however, is that these neolibs, too, have confused barrier reduction with regulatory reduction. Moreover, it simply does not follow that because some who oppose exclusionary zoning also embrace neoliberalism, that the two are inextricably linked. Nor does it follow, as Imbroscio argues at another point, that because one anti-exclusionist policy tool (inclusionary housing) can accurately be characterized as neoliberal, that any anti-exclusionist policy can be similarly characterized.

2. The proposition that opposition to exclusionary zoning is anti-democratic.

At risk of oversimplifying Imbroscio’s case here, I read his argument to suggest that the local resistance of whites to the nearby residence of people of color is fundamentally an expression of democratic processes (‘grassroots groups fighting to control land use’), and thus should be accorded legitimacy. Then he goes on to conclude, that as a result we should abandon opposition to it.  Or he concludes that because the opposition to it is sometimes undemocratic (here he argues that at least one form of anti-exclusionary zoning is a type of state preemption which he considers undemocratic) we should abandon the anti-exclusionary zoning project.  There is much to unpack here. First, as to the sanctity of all expressions of “democratic” political action. I would be out of my league for an extended theoretical debate on this point, but I do wish to make the observation, as I did in my response to the main article, that American democracy has quite comfortably nurtured a violent white supremacy for centuries. Thus, an appeal to the ‘democratic origins’ of any particular position is not particularly persuasive, especially when that position is a protection of white privilege through exclusion, and through the maintenance of patterns of racial domination and hierarchy. The suggestion that all political activity is legitimate simply by definition ignores how our democracy is as distorted and corrupted as our economy on matters of race and the privileges of white people.

Second, it is unclear to me, even if Imbroscio were correct in his claim that exclusionism is a legitimate expression of democratic politics, how that requires us to abandon opposition to exclusionism. Are we not allowed an equally democratic political position aimed at the dismantling of exclusionary zoning? It is here, then, that he goes on to claim that at least one example of such dismantling, the permit override policies that exist in a couple of states, is not democratic, but rather a form of anti-democratic state preemption. This element of his argument is deficient in three ways. The first, as I maintain in my response to the full article, is that the permit override approach is importantly different than state preemption in several ways.  But, additionally, his argument fails even on its own terms. For the sake of argument let’s agree that permit override is the same as state preemption (remembering, however, that it is not). Permit override operates in two or three states out of 50. We are to give up all efforts to eliminate exclusionary zoning because fewer than a handful of states address it through state preemption? Finally, again even if he were correct in equating permit override with preemption (and again, he’s not), so what? Constitutionally, powers of land use control were granted to local governments by the states. If those powers are abused to enact systems of exclusion, then override is a legitimate state action. But, Imbroscio seems to be wary of preemption because it has been used previously in ways that further non-progressive objectives.  Even that argument fails. Why should some governance tools not be utilized by one side of the political divide simply because they are used by the other side?

In previous work I have expressed several criticisms of integrationist and mobility-centered public policy that does little more than reinforce a white supremacist narrative of community deficiencies and racial hierarchy. To me there is no inconsistency between this position and a simultaneous condemnation of the racial exclusionism practiced by white communities and the specific tools, such as exclusionary zoning, that accomplish it. In fact, I believe this combination of positions defines a policy space that I share with many others. I respect that this is not a space that David Imbroscio wishes to occupy. That notwithstanding, there is not enough in his article to convince me to vacate that space.

Read the UAR article here.

Photo by Tom Rumble on Unsplash

Author Biography

Edward Goetz is professor of urban planning at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs and Director of the Center for Urban and Regional Affairs at the University of Minnesota. His research focuses on the intersection between housing policy and planning, and issues of race and class. His most recent book is The One-Way Street of Integration: Fair Housing and the Pursuit of Racial Justice in American Cities.