Fair Housing Advocates Fighting Against Zoning Laws That Perpetuate Racial Inequity

Congress can ensure that reform efforts address structural racism in current and past federal housing policy.
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(Washington D.C.) – The American Jobs Plan’s proposal incentivizing local governments to reform zoning laws could have unintended negative consequences for low- and middle- income families, including increased displacement, while failing to dismantle segregation in higher-income communities, according to a letter sent by the Alliance for Housing Justice and over 100 partner organizations to the Biden administration and members of Congress on Wednesday.

“Local exclusionary zoning is one of the foremost drivers of residential racial segregation and inequality of opportunity in our society, and the federal government played a significant role in creating the problem,” said Thomas Silverstein, associate director with the Fair Housing and Community Development Project at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. “While a major federal investment in dismantling exclusionary zoning is badly needed, in order to truly advance racial justice, it must be thoughtfully designed to avoid the harmful unintended consequence of increased gentrification and displacement.”

Zoning has never simply been a local issue. Historically, the federal government has played a significant role in promoting inequitable, exclusionary zoning policies – including 1920’s Standard Zoning Enabling Act – and has a similar obligation to help end this discriminatory practice. Inclusive efforts must also be made to address and remedy past policies that have contributed to mass displacement of communities of color.

“For generations, housing policy at all levels of government has been designed to further enrich the wealthy and powerful, rather than to ensure that every family has a stable home in a neighborhood where they can thrive. This has divided our communities and harmed all of us,” said Sam Tepperman-Gelfant, managing attorney at Public Advocates. “We can heal these divisions, but only if the needs and voices of historically disenfranchised people who are suffering the most under our current system drive policymaking.”

Federal reform must focus on exclusionary areas where zoning changes are likely to foster integration rather than focusing on low-income communities of color where zoning changes may fuel displacement. Policymakers must give careful consideration to the types of funding provided locally to motivate positive change. Local jurisdictions must be sufficiently interested in the incentive funding to take politically difficult actions within the community; exclusionary communities are less likely to be motivated by funding for affordable housing compared to funding streams that address infrastructure needs like transportation.

“Racial and economic segregation are not natural disasters; they are human-made disasters driven by policy choices, said Liz Ryan Murray, project director of the Alliance for Housing Justice. “The good news is we can undo many of the harms of the past with good policy driven by those who have borne the brunt of the damage.”

“It is critical that any federal rezoning plan address the potential impacts on current and future tenants, especially as tenants of single-family homes that might be converted in ways that impacts stability, affordability and potentially lead to the loss of crucial renter protections,” said Eddie Ytuarte, Co-Chair of Oakland Tenants Union. “Oakland residents desperately need more deeply affordable, decent and safe rental housing, not more multi-million-dollar condominiums and that’s what zoning reform should prioritize.”

Through a well-designed program to dismantle exclusionary zoning, America can advance the goal of fostering the development of inclusive communities that provide opportunity to all of their residents. Congress can ensure that reform efforts address structural racism in current and past federal housing policy.

Read the letter here.

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