Exclusionary zoning: born bad

(First of a series that will include Exclusionary zoning: born bad, and even worse than we thought and Who wants to end exclusionary zoning?)

The single family, large-lot zoning that is Seattle’s predominant land use designation today should not exist in the United States. Soon after it was invented in the early 1900’s, a Federal judge ruled in 1924 that it was an unconstitutional attempt to segregate people by class:

“The plain truth is that the true object of the [zoning] ordinance in question is to place all the property in an undeveloped area of 16 square miles in a strait-jacket. The purpose to be accomplished is really to regulate the mode of living of persons who may hereafter inhabit it. In the last analysis, the result to be accomplished is to classify the population and segregate them according to their income or situation in life. The true reason why some persons live in a mansion and others in a shack, why some live in a single-family dwelling and others in a double-family dwelling, why some live in a two-family dwelling and others in an apartment, or why some live in a well-kept apartment and others in a tenement, is primarily economic.”

He was right, although in fact the motivations of what we now know as “exclusionary zoning” were in fact a mix of class, ethnic, and racial animus, as we can see with a look at the perspective of its early advocates and enthusiasts:

“According to [Harland] Bartholomew, a St. Louis zoning goal was to preserv[e] the more desirable residential neighborhoods,’ and to prevent movement into ‘finer residential districts … by colored people.’ He noted that without a previous zoning ordinance, such neighborhoods have become run down, “where values have depreciated, homes are either vacant or occupied by colored people.’”

“[T]he fight against the Chinese wash-house laid the basis for districting laws in this State of California]…”

“The Elmwood district [of Berkeley] was designated for only single-family residences; the Ordinance made it ‘unlawful to carry on certain trades or callings,’ and as it happened the legislation was expedited ‘to prevent a prominent negro dance hall from locating on a prominent corner.’”

“In 1915, [Berkeley] City Attorney Frank Cornish talked about protecting the single family home owner against the ‘less desirable & floating renter class.’”

“The Italian tenements are rapidly creeping toward Broadway [in Providence], and a beautiful and dignified street seems doomed. Silver Lake is soon to duplicate Federal Hill with its conglomeration of three deckers. So far the native Americans have watched these foreign invasions as if they were helpless. They surrendered North Main and South Main streets to the Portuguese, Jews, and Armenians with little regret, but they are giving up their homes on Broadway and other pleasant streets, not from choice, but for the reason that undesirable buildings have changed the character of the neighborhood.”

“The type of protective restrictions and the high class scheme of layout which we have provided tends to guide and automatically regulate the class of citizens who are settling here. The restrictions prohibit occupation of land by Negroes or Asiatics. The minimum cost of house restrictions tends to group the people of more or less like income together.”

“Only with the Jews and the Italians does the three-decker seem to have been a real success…Other people are beginning to shun the three-decker. They realize that it lowers one’s social standing to be rated as a three-decker dweller…Other cities are safeguarding themselves against the three-deckers, as Providence should do.”

“The Virginia Municipal Review contended that ‘a gradual and natural encroachment of the colored population into White neighborhoods’ was the obvious consequence of an unregulated residential market.”

“His {Herbert Hoover’s] organization’s publications [Better Homes in America] noted African American people’s ‘ignorant racial habit[s]’ and implored white people to move to ‘restricted residential districts’ where they could get ‘protection’ against African American people moving in.”

In 1926 a conservative Supreme Court gave exclusionary zoning a new lease on life. But rather than finding an alternative rationale to class segregation, it simply endorsed it as a good thing. (Among other decisions of this group of justices:  although Indian Sikhs were classified as members of the “Caucasian race,” they were not white within the meaning of the Naturalization Act of 1790 and so are ineligible for naturalized American citizenship; and the exclusion on account of race of a child of Chinese ancestry from a whites-only public school did not violate the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution.)

With particular reference to apartment houses, it is pointed out that the development of detached house sections is greatly retarded by the coming of apartment houses, which has sometimes resulted in destroying the entire section for private house purposes; that, in such sections, very often the apartment house is a mere parasite, constructed in order to take advantage of the open spaces and attractive surroundings created by the residential character of the district. Moreover, the coming of one apartment house is followed by others, interfering by their height and bulk with the free circulation of air and monopolizing the rays of the sun which otherwise would fall upon the smaller homes, and bringing, as their necessary accompaniments, the disturbing noises incident to increased traffic and business, and the occupation, by means of moving and parked automobiles, of larger portions of the streets, thus detracting from their safety and depriving children of the privilege of quiet and open spaces for play, enjoyed by those in more favored localities–until, finally, the residential character of the neighborhood and its desirability as a place of detached residences are utterly destroyed. Under these circumstances…apartment houses, which in a different environment would be not only entirely unobjectionable but highly desirable, come very near to being nuisances.

This decision stands up to no scrutiny whatsoever, since:

  • It’s possible to limit the size of apartments houses to the same size as surrounding single family detached houses without banning them outright;
  • Any concerns about quality of life such as space to play or parking can be regulated without prohibiting multifamily dwellings; and
  • People whose station in life means a home in a multifamily dwelling is what they can afford have as much reason to care about quality of life in the area as residents of greater wealth.

Exclusionary zoning’s advocates didn’t bother wrestling with this logic at the time of the decision. Seattle’s original 1923 zoning commission, for example, promoted the prohibition of small single family detached homes as a benefit of their proposed plan.

(Fortunately, zoning didn’t prevent that particular groups of homes, and they still stand today in the Capitol Hill neighborhood.)

And of course, in the modern era, we know the decision is absurd. In many, many neighborhoods multifamily homes have been intermixed with single family detached houses without causing shortages of light or air. (Photos from Wallingford and Green Lake.)

Unfortunately, the desire to exclude people deemed undesirable has been so strong and pervasive that the tenuous basis of exclusionary zoning has been tolerated, while many have embraced it through the years, up to the present day:

“’If you people can’t afford to live in our town, then you’ll just have to leave.’ With these words, Bill Haines, the Mayor of Mount Laurel, New Jersey, in 1970, rejected a proposal by the town’s African-American community to build an apartment complex.  Haines claimed that the town’s zoning for large-lot, single family homes could not yield to allow apartments.”

“At the time the neighborhood was run down and polluted from the former Gas Works so developers were snapping up Wallingford’s old bungalows and turning them into duplexes for Teamsters and University of Washington students. Wallingford’s homeowners complained to the City of Seattle. Mike Ruby worked for the Building Department at the time [1976]. ‘Basically, they came saying ‘we’ve got this serious problem with developers coming in and disrupting our neighborhood.’  Ruby told them, ‘if you want to make changes in your neighborhood, this is what you need to do.’ They followed his instructions and new duplexes were outlawed.”

Stockdale Estates resident [redacted] said he worries the proposal will be taken to an extreme in which everyone converts garages to house residents. He doesn’t mind making room for mothers-in-law, he said, but he doesn’t want to see his neighborhood become a rental community. ‘It can allow, let’s say, the people with less income into the community,’ he said.”

“Also we want to have long term renters and neighbors that want to be part of our community and not have high turn over of people that are just living here until they can afford something that is bigger than a shoebox.”

‘We ended a [Obama administration] rule that was a very horrible rule for people in suburbia — in the suburbs,’ Trump told reporters at the White House on July 31. ‘And that rule has been a very unfair rule for a long time and it was going to be made a lot worse by Biden and Cory Booker. ‘It’s a rule that, basically, you build low-income housing and you build other forms of housing — also having to do with zoning — and destroy people that have lived in communities in suburbia. For years, they’ve lived there, and they want to destroy their lives and destroy what they have.’”

Fortunately, at long last the tide is turning. No less than the current president of the United States campaigned on ending it (and has come out swinging within his first hundred days). Several communities have already ended it.

In a subsequent post we’ll take a look at “who wants to end exclusionary zoning.” But first we’ll dig in to why its impacts make doing so urgent and important in “Exclusionary zoning: born bad, and even worse than we thought.”