Two new books unravel the complicated story of modern-day housing segregation in America. How did we get here, and how can we right past wrongs?
In many ways Segregation By Design and Generation Priced Out make the same case using different means. It’s the story of wealthy white homeowners exploiting local democracy to entrench and exacerbate existing racial and economic residential segregation.
In Segregation By Design, Jessica Trounstine, Associate Professor of Political Science at UC Merced, comes at the question from a data-based, empirical perspective. Her book is an exhaustive, chart-filled, methodical breakdown of exactly when, where, why, and how wealthy and predominantly white homeowners have shaped policy regimes to exclude lower-class non-whites from their neighborhoods, and deprive minority neighborhoods of quality public services.
Randy Shaw’s Generation Priced Out is in many ways the story version of the data-based case Segregation By Design makes. In the book, Shaw cites housing activist Laura Loe’s adage on how to message YIMBY (Yes In My Back Yard) policies: that one should never use a stat where a story will do. That’s very much what Shaw’s book is. As an experienced tenants rights attorney, Editor of Beyond Chron, and Director of the Tenderloin Housing Clinic, Shaw is uniquely suited to tell these stories.
Land Use, Race, and Class
If you aren’t yet convinced that residential zoning is a fundamentally racist land-use policy, Segregation By Design will likely make a believer out of you. I learned a lot about racism and zoning from this book. I’d have subtitled it “Zoning’s racist history” but no one asked me. Using tight local zoning and other land-use controls to limit density is and always was meant to reinforce existing racial hierarchies and the data shows this.
Zoning both resulted from and increased racial segregation in cities. Cities that were early adopters of zoning later became more segregated along both race and class lines than similar cities that were later to the zoning game. And it works the other way too. The more segregated a city, the more likely it was to adopt zoning with the quickness. For example, cities with segregated schools were more likely to implement zoning ordinances than cities with integrated schools.
Trounstine attacks the idea that zoning isn’t racist, it’s just classist, with a ton of insightful data. In the United States, class inequality is inextricably tied to structural racism, and Trounstine’s studies bear this out. The evidence shows that white communities of all classes have consistently supported race-based housing segregation. Tighter limits on density were deliberately pursued as an effective proxy for explicit racial covenants in early zoning codes. “Racial segregation always garnered a broader base of support than did class segregation,” Trounstine writes.
Between 1924 and 1950, the National Association of Realtors’ Code of Ethics prohibited realtors from ever introducing “members of any race or nationality” to a neighborhood where they might decrease property values.
For a time, deed restrictions were the hot new way for wealthy white homeowners to enforce racial segregation. But after they were outlawed, white homeowners used their control of city governments to pass land use regulations which replaced deed restrictions as the preferred method by which developers and homeowners protected their investment from brown neighbors.
As cities increasingly began expanding their offerings of services between 1900 and 1940, they systematically added fewer sanitation services like sewer lines to black neighborhoods than white ones. And then whites blamed black negligence for the state of their neighborhoods.
Trounstine chronicles how urban renewal programs arose out of a foreclosure crisis during the Great Depression. City governments had been relying on property taxes to fund services, but if you lose your house, you’re generally not paying your property taxes. Rather than cut back on services, real estate interests lobbied mayors to ask the federal government for a bailout for white homeownership. Hence the segregation of the Federal Housing Authority (FHA), and redlining policies, which codified and exacerbated race-based residential segregation. It’s unfortunate, looking back, that the federal government chose to explicitly boost homeownership—primarily for whites—as a path to stable prosperity. Renting could facilitate a more mobile workforce and therefore more dynamic economy, and rather than stigmatizing it relative to ownership, supporting renters may have prevented homeownership from becoming a massive contributor to racial wealth inequality.
And it could have prevented urban renewal programs from further exacerbating racial segregation. Cities used them, along with public housing placement, to protect white families’ property values from the Black and Latino families moving North and West in the early 40s.
All else equal, cities that got more urban renewal grant money had more racial segregation in 1980 than cities that got less. Cities spent most of their urban renewal money displacing black and brown families from their homes using eminent domain and building less (racially segregated) public housing than they tore down.
The White Gerontocracy
The urban renewal grants left it to cities to decide what land to clear and where to build new housing. And since wealthy white homeowners ran cities, this virtually guaranteed the continuation and exacerbation of race and class segregation.
“The most consistent opponents of integration have been white homeowners who came to view the protection of their neighborhoods as a right to be protected by government,” Trounstine wrote. “Whites tend to make decisions that reinforce their privilege without thinking too deeply about it because they want stable property values, good schools, nice parks, and low-crime neighborhoods, and they have the financial opportunity to pursue these goals.”
If that wasn’t depressing enough for you, the central message of Randy Shaw’s Generation Priced Out is that absolutely nothing has changed since the 1940s, and wealthy white homeowners still dominate city governments, and still use land use regulations and local control to keep undesirables out of their neighborhoods.
Shaw tells story after story of wealthy white newcomers flooding a neighborhood, wealthy white homeowners blocking development, and lower income people of color getting screwed.
Take San Francisco, where then-Supervisor Dianne Feinstein responded to the 1970’s housing shortage crisis by prohibiting apartment buildings in vast swaths of the city because that’s what the wealthy white homeowners wanted. She downzoned the westside neighborhoods, codifying the City’s racial and economic residential segregation.
Learning absolutely nothing from past mistakes, a nominally progressive majority of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in the early 2000s banned the city’s only source of affordable housing on the private market, in the only place it was being built, because progressive activists mistakenly blamed live-work lofts in SOMA for gentrification. They later approved luxury condos in that same neighborhood.
“Such was the politics of San Francisco that housing for the elite was approved while loft housing affordable to the middle class was stopped,” Shaw writes. Except that’s how San Francisco still works. For example, Shaw writes that affordable housing developments are legally permitted “by right,” and discretionary review is supposed to only be possible under extraordinary circumstances. Yet, Shaw writes, the City Attorney has allowed the Planning Commission to decide who gets to force a project to undergo discretionary review, and neighborhood groups are exempt from the filing fees for requesting discretionary review. Unsurprisingly, the majority-homeowner Planning Commission regularly approved discretionary review for affordable developments. The Board of Supervisors had the chance to stop this abuse in 2011 when substantial reform came up for review. They sided with wealthy homeowners.
Is There Any Hope?
However, all is not hopeless. Shaw writes that a June 2017 poll found Seattle residents backing upzoning all single-family home neighborhoods 48% to 29%. And that’s with a lower percentage zoned single-family to begin with compared to San Francisco. Already, Seattle approves new housing in eight months, whereas San Francisco can’t assign a planner within six months. After that it’s a minimum of two years to get started building. That, plus housing-friendly political leadership has meant that Seattle has built enough apartments to significantly slow rent growth.
“It’s not demand that has Seattle apartment landlords worried,” Shaw’s book quotes from the Puget Sound Business Journal. “It’s supply.” If only more landlord-hating progressives wanted to hit them where it hurts.
Shaw makes a solid case through storytelling that housing shortages lead to evictions and displacement, and even when those are limited, slumlords abound. He offers many, many examples of rent control, demolition controls, and code enforcement at least partially mitigating the problem.
But these regulations can never do the job of sufficient housing supply. Displaying remarkable candor, Shaw confesses that he was late to the game on realizing this. And so the book focuses a fair amount on band-aids and half-measures that do a decent job of alleviating the suffering and not nearly enough on what will actually solve the root problem.
At the end of the day, however, I’m in awe of Shaw’s intellectual humility. He brings to the table not just decades of time in the trenches as an activist but a beginner’s mind on how to win the war.
And I’m extremely grateful for Trounstine’s exhaustive, painstaking empirical research.
These books left me with a lot of questions. If local democracy is generally going to be captured by segregationist forces it would seem that limiting the negative externalities of majority-rule democracy by limiting municipal control would be one effective solution. Or, you could attack the problem of the perverse incentives of homeownership by rolling back regressive subsidies for higher-priced homes. These aren’t necessarily incompatible, either. But are these solutions worth their costs?
I urge you to read both books and share your thoughts with us.
Cathy Reisenwitz writes about software for a living, sex on the side, and policy for fun. Her column “Unintended Consequences” appears regularly in the Bay City Beacon. She’s pro-sex, pro-feminism, and pro-market. Sign up for her newsletter and follow her on Twitter.