Zoning is not the answer to all our housing problems

November 7, 2019

By Debby Goldberg and Morgan Williams

What should we do to eliminate residential segregation in this country?  That’s a goal that Congress set out to achieve in 1968 when it passed the Fair Housing Act.  Among its other provisions, this 50-year-old law includes a mandate for the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to tackle racial and other forms of segregation and the lack of access to the opportunity it engenders.  That’s a goal we have yet to accomplish and one we still struggle with as a nation.  Some – including, apparently, the Manhattan Institute’s Michael Hendrix and HUD Secretary Ben Carson – seem to think that the solution to both segregation and our growing housing affordability crisis lies in merely making our cities’ zoning codes less restrictive.  This proposal is ill-conceived and will not work.

Tackling segregation is important because where one lives is one of the most consequential decisions facing American families.  That decision influences many other aspects of their lives, including whether their children will attend quality schools, whether they have access to good transportation and jobs, whether they can shop at a grocery store that sells healthy foods, whether the air they breathe is clean, and whether they can walk down safe streets, just to name a few.  Such amenities abound in certain neighborhoods; in fact, they are taken for granted.   In other communities, however – those that have suffered from disinvestment and neglect – they are desperately scarce.

For too many families, housing choice is limited by housing availability.  Many cities across the country face a housing affordability crisis: there is simply a dearth of housing at a price-point that working-class residents like teachers and firefighters can afford, let alone families struggling to survive on the minimum wage.  But the problem is more complicated than a simple economic failure of supply and demand.  Imbued in the housing policies administered by individual landlords, real estate agents, lenders, insurance companies, and even local municipalities are unjustified barriers that restrict access to credit, insurance, and rental services, which lock residents with the fewest resources into racially, ethnically, and economically segregated neighborhoods.  These same barriers to housing also limit the choices of people with greater means.

Accordingly, creating more integrated communities will require more than simply easing zoning restrictions to pave the way for a greater supply of affordable units.  Local communities also need to carefully consider the numerous barriers to housing choice that interact and compound one another, and that ultimately result in perpetuating our communities’ segregated neighborhoods.  

The existing HUD rule to support local communities in considering steps to affirmatively further fair housing—currently suspended by HUD—is designed to serve just this purpose by providing jurisdictions with a process to review their markets, including zoning and land-use restrictions, and identify nuanced local solutions.  For example, Paramount, California conducted an assessment of fair housing in 2016 under the existing HUD regulation and identified the need to promote housing accessibility for all protected classes.  To achieve this goal, it proposed to “[a]mend the Zoning Ordinance to permit ‘second units’ by right in all residential zones” and “[a]mend the City’s Zoning Ordinance…to include licensed residential care facilities serving six or fewer persons as a permitted use by right in all residential zones,” and it delineated explicit deadlines for these and other changes so progress can be tracked.

Taking a close look at communities’ zoning ordinances, then, is, in fact, an important strategy for expanding housing choices and creating more equitable access to opportunity, and one that HUD’s current, suspended fair housing rule encompasses.  But it is far from the only strategy needed, and by itself will not help us achieve our fair housing goals.  It is false to suggest —as HUD Secretary Carson and others have done—that local communities need only reduce zoning restrictions to increase housing supply, solve their deeply entrenched segregation, create integrated neighborhoods and shore up neighborhoods that are under-resourced.  Such a singular strategy will fail because it does not account for the complex market functions, beyond just zoning restrictions, that have long divided us.

The 2019 Fair Housing Trends Report, recently released by the National Fair Housing Alliance, evaluates comments that Secretary Carson and others have made about a proposed new affirmatively further fair housing rule that HUD has under development.  That new rule will likely focus on eliminating exclusionary zoning barriers, based on the false assumption that the private market, unfettered, will solve the problems of housing discrimination, segregation, and affordability.  Requiring local communities to employ a single, federally-mandated strategy – reduce zoning restrictions to increase affordable housing and conquer segregation – robs local governments of the ability to devise multi-faceted, locally-tailored solutions.  It may exacerbate, rather than helping to eliminate, segregation.  Instead of moving us forward in tackling the job that Congress gave HUD in 1968, it may set that effort back, an outcome our country can ill afford.

Debby Goldberg is the Vice President for Housing Policy and Morgan Williams is the General Counsel at the National Fair Housing Alliance

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