The Urbanist Musings of Pete Saunders

Fighting Today’s Battles

The intersection of 63rd and Halsted in Englewood, on Chicago’s South Side.  Source:
The struggle for fair housing and against exclusionary zoning were indeed key battlegrounds for the Civil Rights Movement.  I know that not just because I studied it, but I lived it.  Sadly, that fight was lost and conditions changed.  It’s time to fight the battle that’s before us today, not the one that existed nearly 50 years ago.

Daniel Kay Hertz wrote a wonderful article in the Washington Post three weeks ago about zoning as a civil rights issue.  From its Supreme Court victory in the Euclid v. Ambler case in 1926 to the passage of the Fair Housing Act in 1968, it’s been understood that there were many exclusionary aspects to zoning, restricting the construction of housing where it was in fact needed most.  As Hertz says here:

So civil rights activists took up the cause of what became known as “exclusionary zoning.” (The term was applied in many places, but most often to laws that allowed only more expensive, low-density housing, and kept out smaller homes or apartment buildings.) For a very brief while, it looked like they might win some quick, major victories. After the passage of the 1968 Fair Housing Act, President Richard Nixon’s first HUD secretary, George Romney (father of Mitt), actually devised a plan to deny federal money to cities and suburbs that engaged in exclusionary zoning.

Unfortunately, as Nicole Hannah-Jones describes at the beginning of her excellent ProPublica piece on the failures of desegregation, Nixon was not exactly a racial progressive, and he quashed Romney’s plan before it could begin.

Hertz is right that after the Nixon Administration failed to follow through on the promise of the Fair Housing Act, the battle shifted to states and municipalities, where the challenge to exclusionary zoning died a slow and agonizing death.

I would have agreed that we must pick up the challenge against exclusionary zoning, until I worked on a project that completely changed my perception of the current problems facing black communities.

About eight years ago I worked on a neighborhood plan for Chicago’s Englewood and West Englewood communities.  My firm at the time was hired to develop strategies for revitalizing a troubled part of the city.  Greater Englewood has developed a strong reputation as one of the most challenged communities in the city, and frequently shows up as the location of various crimes on the evening news.

My analysis at the time found an area of the city that saw its population decline from 157,000 in 1940 to just 85,000 by 2000 (and down to just 64,000 by 2012).  Between 1980 and 2000, the number of households dropped by 13 percent.  The number of housing units dropped by a staggering 21 percent over the same period.  In 2006, more than 20 percent of Greater Englewood’s land, and 35 percent of platted lots, were vacant.

As part of the project I did a residential absorption analysis.  Keep in mind that mid-2000s Chicago was coming off the first — and so far, only — decade since 1950 that it produced an increase in population.  In 2000 Chicago reported a growth in population of about 4 percent over the 1990 total.  In the Greater Englewood Plan, I said:

There are approximately 5,000 vacant residential lots in Greater Englewood.  If all the residential parcels were rebuilt with residential units, at the same annual absorption rate as the City of Chicago during the relatively high-growth 1990s, it would take approximately 50 years to complete the buildout of the area.

Did exclusionary zoning create this condition in Greater Englewood?  I think not.  Why? Because we need to understand the transformations that took place between Euclid in 1926 and the Fair Housing Act in 1968, and beyond.

For 40 years after Euclid, exclusionary zoning created constricted and overpopulated African-American ghettos in our cities, while suburbs remained lily white.  In the nearly 50 years since the Fair Housing Act, blacks have steadily flowed from those ghettos to outlying city neighborhoods and to the suburbs, without the benefit of exclusionary zoning being overturned.

The Fair Housing Act’s provision to eliminate housing discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion or national origin provided the necessary opening to the suburbs for African-Americans.

This is not to suggest that the transformation has been seamless, or even completely effective.  I wrote in the Guardian two weeks ago that the resegregation of suburbs is happening, and many of the same issues that impacted cities in the ’60s and ’70s are starting to pop up in our suburbs today.  Look around, and African-American representation — indeed, minority representation — has never been higher in the suburbs, and it continues to grow.  As a confirmed progressive I find it odd to say this, but this is an example of market triumphing over regulation.

But let’s come back to Englewood.  Would zoning reform help Englewood?  Is Chicago’s restrictive zoning policy keeping residents from moving to Englewood, when 35 percent of the parcels are vacant?  Would allowing more units to be constructed in Englewood create a greater incentive to build there?

We actually took the opposite approach.  We encouraged the city to create a land use and infill policy that would reduce the overall number of parcels.  We said to create more contemporary — read bigger — lot sizes.  We said to create the possibility for larger single family homes.  We said to facilitate the sale of vacant land to adjacent neighbors who want them.  We said to create urban gardens and farms.  We said to devote more space to institutional uses.  Why did we make such counter-intuitive recommendations?

Because the demand for living in Englewood was — and remains — at rock-bottom.  As St. Louis alderwoman Sharon Tyus said in my article in the Guardian, “no one wants to live next to black people.”  Demand needs to be stimulated there, and in other neighborhoods like it.

Exclusionary zoning is still a problem throughout much of suburbia.  Yes, there are many suburbs that still constrict development to inflate prices and minimize multifamily housing development.  But that’s not the chief problem of our metro areas anymore.  African-Americans and all minorities have made significant inroads into suburbia anyway.  The time for addressing exclusionary zoning as an affordable housing strategy has come and gone, because times have changed.

I will reiterate my concern regarding addressing exclusionary zoning now, past its prime.  Suburban zoning reform will mean more multifamily housing in the suburbs.  Yay suburbs.  It will mean current suburban residents will make one of two choices — 1) they will move to further-out suburban areas where multifamily housing is not projected to take off soon, or 2) they will accelerate the return to cities that we experience as gentrification today.  If more choose the former, we’ve created more sprawl.  If more choose the latter, we’ve created a new environment where suddenly, cities become whiter and more affluent, and suburbs become more racially and ethnically diverse, and poorer.  In fact, this is already happening, without addressing exclusionary zoning in any meaningful way.  It’s happening in Chicago.  This blog article details how it’s happening in metro Atlanta:

Today, children raised in that era (the ’90s suburban boom) are bringing up their own families and most are choosing to do so far away from their childhood homes.  The youngest generation of middle class Metro Atlantans have abandoned large swaths of Cobb County, leaving behind their aging parents and the poorer families most recent to arrive.  Rather than staying close to their childhood homes, they have gone one of two ways.  Some have moved further out to join new exurban developments while others have moved intown.  This transition has left much of Cobb County and many of its schools in a drastically different state than most might have imagined in the early 1990’s.

Beware the unintended consequences.

2 Responses to “Fighting Today’s Battles”

  1. Jaja

    To be fair, a lot of zoning reform advocates are also arguing for upzoning in central city neighborhoods that are gentrifying or are already gentrified, and are arguing that even if upzoning could help the residents of Englewood by enabling them to move to other neighborhoods even if it does not help Englewood itself. However, I think that even then there are potential unintended consequences of this idea: it might accelerate depopulation of non-gentrifying neighborhoods and create a \”density gap\” between gentrifying and non-gentrifying neighborhoods, which would be used to justify continuing disinvestment in the non-gentrifying neighborhoods.


  2. Michael Higgins Jr.

    This raises another interesting dilemma. I don't know if you are familiar with Strong Towns, but it is a non-profit that deals with how the current choices of development today – particularly the movement further out and slow decline of first ring suburbs have huge long term costs in the amount of capital necessary to maintain basic infrastructure. So huge that they predict the average municipality to teeter on the edge of financial solvency.



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