It seems that the COVID-19 pandemic has made many people realize their city dwellings are too small. The shift that lots of young people made from major cities to suburban areas in the last 18 months has been well documented, and given the promise of single-family homes with plenty of space for an office that isn’t your sofa, it’s easy to see why. But amazing as it sounds, the layout of your new neighborhood may be excluding others who seek out their slice of the American Dream.
Historically, the federal government has long enacted exclusionary zoning policies that explicitly restricted people of color from accessing housing in white communities, a policy choice that has resulted in intense racial segregation and curtailed housing opportunities for families of color, says Michael Stegman, a non-resident fellow at The Urban Institute. In particular, a process known as redlining emerged in the 1930s, which involved mortgage lenders and insurance companies denying applicants access or approval based on their race.
Modern-day suburbs tend to have more of these exclusive zoning laws than inner cities, largely because the suburbs are zoned for single-family housing rather than other kinds of multiunit housing, says Sara Bronin, lead organizer of Desegregate Connecticut and professor at Cornell University. In Connecticut, for example, research shows that the majority of land zoned for residential property development requires an acre of land for each housing unit. This minimum lot size and inflexibility about how those lots can be used curtails housing supply and makes existing housing even more expensive, which is already out of reach for ordinary Americans. According to the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, the average home price in the United States peaked in Q2 2021 at $434,200, while a 2021 report from the National Low Income Housing Coalition estimated that full-time workers need to earn at least $20.40 per hour to rent just a one-bedroom home. This is nearly three times the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour.
However, there is some good news, with lawmakers working at the federal level to make housing more accessible by eliminating these exclusionary zoning policies. In October, the U.S. House Subcommittee on Housing, Community Development and Insurance held a hearing focused specifically on solving these issues, while President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better Plan includes more than $300 billion in resources for communities seeking to reduce and eliminate exclusionary zoning regulations. The bill also includes further assistance to first-time homebuyers who are so rent-burdened that they've been unable to save for a down payment.
It’s not clear how much funding from Biden’s bill will survive the ongoing congressional negotiations, though many of the changes needed to rectify these injustices face resistance at a local level from NIMBYs: “Not-In-My-Backyard” types of suburbanites who oppose the establishment of things considered undesirable in their community.
Those who find themselves departing cities for more spacious suburbs should take up against this opposition. The affordable housing crisis disproportionately impacts communities of color and Black people in particular, and advocating for inclusive zoning policies builds stronger, fairer communities and helps ensure racial justice.
Here are some steps a new suburbanite can take in their own community.
Understand The Opposition To Inclusive Zoning Policies
One common obstacle observed by Thomas Silverstein, associate director of the Fair Housing & Community Development Project at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, is the idea that suburban communities simply cannot be rezoned to accommodate anything besides single-family housing. Though we know that America's city apartment and commercial buildings all eventually reach the end of their life and must be replaced, America’s post-World War II suburbs are fairly new, Silverstein explains. For many residents it is unclear what replacing suburban structures will look like. Plus, affluent suburbs have the funds to improve and extend the life cycle of their homes.
In addition to overt racism and classism that drives the resistance to rezoning, Silverstein points to pop culture depictions of the idealistic white picket fence lifestyle of suburbia — which carries its own classist and racist undertones — that drive resistance to rezoning. Another reason, he adds, is the practice of fiscal zoning, meaning zoning with the idea that more affordable rental housing results in proportionally greater service utilization and proportionally less tax revenue than commercial development and single-single family homes.“In cities, it’s always assumed that it’s a natural process, that land will get reused all the time,” Silverstein says. “But in the suburbs, it’s ignored that this is a thing that can and should happen.” Resistance from long-term government employees and politicians is also common, he reports. Some are simply reluctant to propose inclusive measures; others fear political retribution if they do.
Those who oppose inclusive zoning policies cite multiple reasons why modernization will disrupt their neighborhood. Some of these are fairly standard concerns — water, traffic, noise, school overcrowding — though others, as Silverstein puts it, are “uglier.” Reports from communities in Austin, Texas; Houston, Texas; and St. Paul, Minnesota, for example, detail residents concerned about “the character” of their neighborhood changing.
“People who are Not-In-My-Backyard racists are clever enough not to explicitly say it's about race or use racial slurs, although sometimes they slip up,” Silverstein says. “But you get
the euphemisms, the coded language, particularly often expressed in terms of fear, or fear of violent crime, which is a big one that often gets mentioned in these conversations.”
Challenge Assumptions With Data
Bronin reports hearing similar objections, with another recurring complaint being that changing regulations might affect property values. However, the research shows that inclusive zoning policies have the opposite effect on property values, and crime. A 2016 analysis from the real estate site Trulia found that, with a few exceptions, adding low-income housing projects in 20 of the least affordable markets in the United States had no significant impact on home values located near the low-income housing project.
Still, some opponents may not be convinced that changing zoning policies will benefit their community, so it's up to advocates and supporters to convey its benefits, especially for essential workers, intergenerational households, people with disabilities, and others who could benefit from the modern zoning policies, Bronin adds.
“One of the best ways to assuage people's concerns about new housing is to show successful
housing projects that have been built in similar communities, and to show how these projects don't bring crime, they don't overcrowd schools, they don't bring crushing traffic burdens. What they do is enrich the life of the community in ways that cookie cutter, one-size-fits-all, and zoning simply doesn't,” Bronin says.
Organize Your Neighbors
Once you’ve gotten an understanding of the forces at play, Bronin points to Desegregate Connecticut's guide for organizing community members to learn how to advocate for inclusive zoning policies in your own community. The guide offers advice on how many people you need to gather, which allies to approach within the government, and how to persuasively communicate your story.
“These are all tools that somebody who wants to advocate at the local or even at the state level needs so that they understand the rules of the game, so that they understand the terms that people are using, and so that they can engage meaningfully and sensitively on this really important area of law that affects all of their lives within the community,” Bronin says.
Go To Community Meetings
Because many people don't show up to local meetings about zoning policies, community members have a greater chance at making a difference if they do, Silverstein says, adding that those who do tend to show up are older, white, and wealthy.
In particular, he recommends going to city council meetings where planning issues are on the agenda as well as planning commission hearings, testifying during those meetings, and repeatedly showing up for the cause.
Support Complementary Policies In Other Areas
Exclusionary zoning policies can take on a different form depending on each region's idiosyncrasies, Silverstein says, and so it’s important to see them as part of the bigger ecosystem. In addition to targeting the zoning regulations that contribute to modern-day segregation, it's critical to support protections against displacement and gentrification, including safeguarding against the demolition of occupied rental housing, he adds.
“These decisions are made at the local level, but they have ripple effects in many different tiers at the national level,” Bronin notes. “If we had more inclusive zoning and planning laws, we would see greater housing security for residents of all income levels, greater housing choices for people — whether they want to own or rent — and a more vibrant and sustainable economy.”