The Privileged Few: How Exclusionary Zoning Amplifies the Advantaged and Blocks New Housing—and What We Can Do About It

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

In December 2018, the city of Minneapolis effectively abolished single-family zoning in its 2040 Comprehensive Plan. This made it the first American city to alter its zoning code so that no neighborhoods were set aside exclusively for single-family homes. Public officials touted the benefits of this measure for both racial and economic inclusion.  City councilor Cam Gordon said, “A lot of research has been done on the history that’s led us to this point. That history helped people realize that the way the city is set up right now is based on this government-endorsed and sanctioned racist system.” Mayor Jacob Frey highlighted the economically exclusive nature of single-family zoning: “Large swaths of our city are exclusively zoned for single-family homes, so unless you have the ability to build a very large home on a very large lot, you can’t live in the neighborhood.”   

Indeed, the purpose of exclusionary zoning was to constrain the local housing stock, thereby restricting the people who could live in a particular community. Built to exclude poor people and people of color, land use restrictions succeeded in their aims. What’s more, they have contributed to exploding housing costs in many cities, making it impossible for the housing supply to keep pace with demand in high-growth locales.

On top of these economic and social harms, land use restrictions have had deleterious effects on local politics, distorting local planning processes in favor of advantaged interests. My UAR article outlines these political harms, and the local policy tools we might use to redress these challenges, using evidence from my forthcoming book with David Glick and Maxwell Palmer, Neighborhood Defenders: Participatory Politics and America’s Housing Crisis (Cambridge University Press, 2020). In many communities, when property-owners seek to develop a plot of land into more than one housing unit, they find themselves before their local planning or zoning board at a public hearing, courtesy of land use restrictions. At these hearings, developers typically present their plans, followed by questions from board officials. Then proceedings turn over to members of the public.

My research with David Glick and Maxwell Palmer shows that the individuals who show up to these hearings are deeply unrepresentative of their broader communities. They are whiter, older, and dramatically more likely to be homeowners. Moreover, they are overwhelmingly opposed to the construction of new housing. Rather than acting as tools for neighborhood empowerment, these meetings serve as airhorns amplifying the voices of already advantaged community residents. What’s more, these community residents use these forums to block market-rate and affordable housing alike, preventing private developers and governments from constructing housing.

These participatory forces not only shapes neighborhood-level politics—they make coalition-building around affordable housing much more challenging. Low-income neighborhoods are often more laxly zoned, and lack the ardent and active housing opponents who dominate more advantaged communities. Consequently, they find themselves targeted by developers, and bear the brunt of construction pressures in high-demand cities. Understandably, then, many low-income housing advocates chafe at the message that they should reform zoning, in a way that, in their eyes, would permit unfettered development. These concerns have stymied multiple state-level efforts at land-use reform, including California’s SB 827, and, to a lesser extent, SB 50.

The consequences of land use regulations thus extend beyond contributing to segregation and rising housing costs—they engender profound political inequalities that shape both the supply of housing and efforts at housing reform. Changing the way we regulate land use is critical for creating a more equitable local politics. Importantly, I—like many land use reform advocates—argue that changing land use regulations—not eliminating them—is critical for achieving these positive ends. There are some regulations—such as single-family zoning, especially on large lot sizes—that serve little function other than exclusion; these indeed should be eliminated. But, rather than simply leaving a vacuum in their place, reformers push for regulations that incentivize the production of dense and sustainable multifamily housing.

Importantly, anti-exclusionary zoning advocates do not see zoning reform as the sole solution to housing reform. It will not fully address the housing shortage—especially the affordable housing shortage. Nor will abolishing single-family zoning eliminate racial and class-based segregation. It is, however, a necessary first step to housing reform, as part of a multi-pronged, multi-level effort. Even if the federal government were to decide tomorrow to provide massive funding for new affordable housing projects, local zoning and planning boards could easily stymie these efforts—as they have done with federal government efforts to promulgate affordable housing through public housing and Low Income Housing Tax Credits. Land use reform is an integral part of any effort at increasing housing accessibility for all.

Read the UAR article here.

Photo by Tom Rumble on Unsplash

Author Biography

Katherine Levine Einstein is an assistant professor of political science at Boston University and a Faculty Fellow at the Initiative on Cities. She has published multiple peer-reviewed articles on local politics and public policy. Her book (with David Glick and Maxwell Palmer) Neighborhood Defenders: Participatory Politics and America’s Housing Crisis is forthcoming from Cambridge University Press.