We Must Repeal Our Segregation Laws

Americans have always used housing policy to force “undesirable” people to live somewhere else. By 1948, the Supreme Court prevented cities from enforcing racial segregation via the widespread practices of racial zoning laws and racially restrictive covenants. When the Supreme Court strikes down popular practices, people figure out how to get the closest they can to their goal without getting struck down again. After taking a look at what followed, it’s not hard to imagine what that era’s policymakers must have thought. “Blacks are undesirable, but you know what? Poor people are pretty undesirable in general, and lots of blacks are poor. Let’s make them all live somewhere else.”

Our land use laws are a festering inheritance from long-dead bigots. We are segregationists. We must repeal our segregation laws.

Some neighborhoods are full of homes that are too expensive for you to afford. The richest people get to live in the best neighborhoods, and everyone else gets priced out. We blame the housing market for catering to the rich, or we blame ourselves for not being the rich, then we move on to our second or third choice neighborhoods.

It’s illegal to use this little land per home in most American neighborhoods.

The housing market isn’t why great neighborhoods are full of expensive homes. Our segregation laws mandate expensive homes because we prevent people from buying less land. For example, teachers can’t live next to tech workers in so many neighborhoods because the law requires every home to have a large lot. We don’t pay teachers as much as tech workers, but our laws force them to make the same purchase to be neighbors. Teachers could afford to share land and build four homes on the same amount of land that a tech worker builds one home, but that’s against the rules in almost all of our neighborhoods. This makes mixed-income neighborhoods rare. Our laws force the middle class to other neighborhoods or even other cities.

The middle class isn’t getting priced out by the market. They’re getting segregated out because our laws won’t let them buy less land. It’s happening all over the country.

Atherton is full of palatial estates by law, more or less.

The middle class is getting segregated out in Silicon Valley. Atherton is the wealthiest city in the country, and they keep it that way with laws that segregate out anyone who can’t afford an entire acre of prime real estate. The lot requirements are out of the reach of the middle class in Palo Alto, Mountain View, and the rest of the Bay Area. Segregated housing gives them segregated schools for free. It’s a pretty good deal. These self-styled progressives mock Donald Trump’s wall while admiring the legal walls right outside their windows. They’ve built a wall and made the middle class pay for it with higher prices and longer commutes.

The middle class is getting segregated out in Seattle, where Amazon’s success is drawing in employees from around the country in huge numbers. Even tech workers can’t afford to live in some of Seattle’s neighborhoods without sharing land to build more homes than the city currently allows. Segregation pushes them to other neighborhoods where they become gentrifiers who displace existing residents—it’s a domino effect that speeds up gentrification in Seattle neighborhoods. Growth doesn’t have to be a terrible thing, but since growth is illegal in the majority of the city that’s zoned for single family housing, those who can’t pay for less land in wealthy neighborhoods have to gentrify cheaper neighborhoods. Mayor Ed Murray tried to ease segregation laws citywide last year, but he walked back the decision in the face of political uproar. Segregation is popular in Seattle. But Seattle isn’t alone.

A map of laws that shows you where different kinds of people live is probably a segregation map.

The middle class is getting segregated out in Austin, the most economically segregated city in the country, and the least affordable city in the affordable state of Texas. Not coincidentally, Austin has the strictest lot size laws in the state. Austin has stronger segregation laws than the more conservative, less glamorous Texas cities its residents are fond of mocking. This Thursday, City Council will make those laws even stricter than they are today if Austinites don’t demand that they stop. People who can’t afford to meet land requirements in desirable central Austin neighborhoods get pushed into the east side where longstanding minority communities are being displaced at incredible rates. Austin is the only large, growing city with a shrinking black population. It’s tragic and avoidable.

Defenders of our unjust status quo claim that making it easier to buy less land will somehow make our cities less affordable. I haven’t been able to find a single reputable economist who agrees with them. Conservative economists like Edward Glaeser have long opposed restrictive zoning. President Obama’s Chief Economist sees that “income inequality across cities remains entrenched and may even be exacerbated” as a result of restrictive zoning. According to Nobel laureate and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, “this is an issue on which you don’t have to be a conservative to believe that we have too much regulation.” The willingness of those who support our segregation laws to ignore expert opinion is eerily familiar, but we must not allow the logic of climate denial to justify segregating our cities.

Let’s also not pretend that it’s possible to segregate by income in America without worsening segregation by race. The intent of the people who support these laws is irrelevant. We have a responsibility to consider how our policies impact all of our communities, not just the people we know. Given the disparity of incomes by race in this country, it seems likely that the racial segregation we see in our cities is exacerbated by our income segregation laws.

This isn’t a new argument. In 1988, Mary Dews sued the town of Sunnyvale, Texas for using apartment prohibitions and large lot requirements to keep black people out of the town. U.S. District Judge Jerry Buchmeyer came to the conclusion that “Sunnyvale’s ban on apartments and stubborn insistence on large lot, low density zoning … perpetuate racial segregation in Dallas County.” Most cities, however, aren’t as brazen as Sunnyvale in their efforts to segregate minorities out of their communities, so we can’t rely on the courts to desegregate our cities. We have to desegregate our cities ourselves.

We habitually put up “you must be this rich to enter” signs in our laws across the country. The only reason we keep doing it is because the bigots who came a century before us were cool with using the levers of government to force poor people to live somewhere else. Income segregation is no longer acceptable. We must remove regulations that make it hard to buy less land. We must stop enforcing restrictive covenants that prevent people from sharing land. We must repeal our segregation laws.

Our segregation laws are everyone’s responsibility, and we all must fight them.