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September 2022 - Episode 7

Racialized Zoning

Land-use regulations such as zoning are connected to every topic we cover on this show. When you zoom out and look at the big picture, many forms of racial inequity in America link back to how communities are planned and developed. It’s why some neighborhoods have fewer transportation options than others, and why certain parts of town have empty lots in place of parks, schools and affordable housing.

Through zoning, deed restrictions and redlining, ‘desirable’ neighborhoods have historically been made inaccessible to Black Americans. Meanwhile, the neighborhoods that Black people have been pushed into are neglected and over-policed. You probably know what comes next – as a result, Black Americans have their comfort and safety threatened while crossing the street, riding their bikes, taking buses and trains, and choosing to simply exist in public space.

Zoning is just one way that Black Americans have had their mobility arrested. Today, we’re exploring how land-use policy has historically contributed to institutional racism, segregation, and social and economic inequality.

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Photo by Glenn Hansen on Unsplash

Jamie Chriqui:
I think zoning has a lot of tentacles that can inhibit people’s mobility. And those tentacles are far reaching. They affect things related to the street scape, parks and green space, public transit and public transit access, bicycle amenities. And so when you’re thinking about zoning and sort of larger impact, it’s almost all encompassing related to arrest and mobility, right?

Jocelyn Gibson:
Small everyday decision-making and zoning leads to profound changes in the built environment over time, and that change is so slow that I think we’re often not even aware that it’s happening. But I just think it’s an extremely powerful tool.

Heather Worthington:
The awareness that it has brought to me about how our communities are shaped and operate and work or don’t work for people, it’s been life-changing for me, just to be able to see it more clearly. Once you see the data, you can’t unsee it.

Charles T. Brown:
Land use regulations such as zoning are connected to every topic we cover on this show. When you zoom out and look at the big picture, many forms of racial inequity in America link back to how communities are planned and developed, is why some neighborhoods have fewer transportation options than others, and why certain parts of towns have empty lots in place of parks, schools, and affordable housing. Some of these regulations have deep roots.

Heather Worthington:
In the 1870s and 80s, black families were buying property in South Minneapolis. They were establishing businesses. In fact, a black family owned what is today the most expensive real estate in the Twin Cities. Black families were making inroads, they were building an economic presence in the community, and that was seen as threatening to people who were white and wanted to live in those areas. And so they utilized these deed restrictions and other regulations to effectively say, “This is a no-go zone for you. You cannot come here.”

Charles T. Brown:
Through zoning, deed restrictions and redlining, desirable neighborhoods have historically been inaccessible to black Americans. Meanwhile, the neighborhoods that black people have been pushed into are neglected and overpoliced. You probably know what comes next. As a result, black Americans have their comfort and safety threaten while crossing the street, riding their bikes, taking buses and trains, and choosing to simply exist in public space. Zoning is just one way that black Americans have had their mobility arrested. Today, we’re exploring how land use policy has historically contributed to institutional racism, segregation, and social and economic inequality. I am Charles T. Brown, and this is Arrested Mobility. Thanks for joining us.

One of the most notable and recognizable forms of land use planning is zoning. If you’re not an urban planning professional, you might be wondering what exactly is zoning. Zoning laws organize how land may be used. They establish a pattern of development across neighborhoods and the city by identifying what may be built on a particular piece of property. That’s the simplest textbook definition. But to people who live in the city, dealing with zoning is not always so straightforward. I spoke with Jocelyn Gibson, an urban planner in Cincinnati, to find out how she describes zoning to ordinary people.

Jocelyn Gibson:
My name is Jocelyn Gibson. I work for a firm called ZoneCo. We are based in Ohio, and rewrite zoning codes across the United States. When I’m speaking with communities, I try to put zoning in terms that is identifiable, that is relatable for them. I start out by sort of explaining that it’s kind of the DNA of our built environment. And I mean that because your DNA is something that’s kind of working behind the scenes to affect what you look like, your personality, debatably, but so many things about yourself are dictated by your DNA. And I’d say in communities that zoning is this thing that’s underlying this set of rules that is sort of deciding how the built environment manifests. How tall can your building be? What is the setback from the street? What is the minimum lot size, maybe sort of the uses that are permitted on that property? Could you put a factory on it? Could you put a restaurant on it? Could you put a home on it? An apartment building?

And what can you do with that property? What’s permitted? I also explain it as goals for the city. So you’ll say we’re creating these zoning regulations to accomplish this particular policy goal.

Charles T. Brown:
A zoning code often reflects policy goals from a city’s comprehensive plan. This is a document that attempts to plan out community development over a long period of time, maybe the next 20 years. One of the most progressive comprehensive plans in action now can be found in Minneapolis. In 2015, the Atlantic did a series of articles about racial disparities in the Twin Cities, Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota. The articles highlighted deep inequities around home ownership, educational attainment, income, and employment. In response, the city of Minneapolis decided to update their comprehensive plan, now titled Minneapolis 2040. Heather Worthington led the team that put Minneapolis 2040 in place.

Heather Worthington:
My name is Heather Worthington. I am the principal with Worthington Advisors, LLC, which is a firm that focuses on consulting to local government around issues like land use, racial disparities, and management and leadership. And I most recently was the leader of the Minneapolis 2040 plan in Minneapolis, Minnesota, which was the comprehensive plan, update, and process that took about two years. We did this in partnership with a program at the University of Minnesota called Mapping Prejudice, which is led by Dr. Kirsten Delegard. And Dr. Delegard and her team had been looking at racially restrictive covenants, and these were deed restrictions that ran with the land, with the property in neighborhoods beginning around the turn of the last century. They were used to restrict home ownership to whites only in most of the most desirable neighborhoods in Minneapolis, especially around the lakes. So we have these really beautiful urban lakes in Minneapolis, and all the neighborhoods that were developed in the 19 teens and twenties were deed restricted in those areas.

And we’ve started looking at that data that Dr. Delegard and her team were producing, and we realized that the zoning information that we had going back to the mid 1920s, closely paralleled those deed restrictions. So what was happening was that developers were using the deed restrictions, and then the city was coming in behind them and zoning those areas single family. And the result was that those neighborhoods were completely closed to people of color. Then in the 1940s and 50s, the federal government started using what’s called redlining to prevent people of color from obtaining federally underwritten loans so that they could purchase property. So the combination of deed restrictions, zoning, and redlining were a very effective block to people of color purchasing property and living in those neighborhoods. And then in the 1950s and 60s, the federal government also utilized its power of eminent domain and land use authority inciting the Federal highway system during the Eisenhower administration.

So they purchased large tracks of land and took out traditional and historic black neighborhoods, in particular in the Twin Cities and in other communities. There were other cultural and racial communities that were impacted, but in the Twin Cities, it was primarily black communities, and cited those freeways in those black communities, effectively destroying any kind of land and home ownership that those communities held. In St. Paul, it was the Rondo neighborhood. In Minneapolis, it was the 38th and Chicago neighborhood where George Floyd was murdered. So there is a history of racial violence and disparities that has been well-documented in the Twin Cities, and in particular, in Minneapolis. And so we were really interested in looking at that and understanding how we could, in today’s zoning and regulatory environment, start to reverse the impact of those very intentional racial disparities that were implemented in the 19 teens and 20s.

Charles T. Brown:
That was the best overview I’ve heard of that process. Can you speak more specifically about the racial disparities in Minneapolis that were the impetus for this plan?

Heather Worthington:
So we were seeing things like very low educational attainment by black and brown children, particularly African-American children. In some school districts in the West Metro in Minneapolis, we were seeing something like 40% graduation rates for black students. We were seeing household incomes that were very, very low for black families, and we were obviously seeing the impacts of generational poverty in those communities. But we were also seeing things like black men earning something around 30 cents on every dollar that a white man earned in this Twin Cities. So we were seeing deep economic disparities in the Twin Cities. We were also seeing very low rates of home ownership for black families, and we were seeing very high rent impact for black families. So between 2010 and 20, oh, I think 15 or 16, we saw a situation in North Minneapolis, which had historically been a black community, an area where rents had been affordable, where people had access to, in some cases home ownership, but more often in renting, we saw a situation where there were no more units affordable to people who identified as black in those areas based on their income.

So we were seeing a massive disparity economically for the black community, and we were also seeing things that I think are more subtle and nuanced. And that is things like a lack of public investment in those areas. So areas that were traditionally or historically black neighborhoods got a much lower investment when it came to things like roadway improvements, park improvements, addressing simple things like lighting. So we were seeing very deep disparities in terms of the quality of life in those neighborhoods. So the disparities were deep and persistent is how I would describe them.

Charles T. Brown:
During our interview, when Heather was breaking this down, I became very, very emotional. The raw honesty and clarity in which she spoke touched me deeply. Few people, particularly white people, make this connection as clearly. I think it’s because Heather’s a planner. She sees the big picture in the data, and the reality of a rest of mobility becomes undeniable. Back to our conversation, one of the most controversial changes in Minneapolis 2040 is the elimination of single family zoning, but there are some misconceptions about what that means.

Heather Worthington:
We didn’t really eliminate single family zoning. What we did was we said, you can still have a single family home. For many Americans, that’s a dream. It’s a great thing. Awesome, have a single family home. But if you have a single family home on a 40 by 120 lot, we think there’s more room for additional housing. And maybe you want to build an accessory dwelling unit, or you want to subdivide your very large house into a duplex, or you want to build a garage with an ADU over it. So there’s a number of things you can do. And the reality is what we recommended and the council approved was nothing different than what you could do on a single family lot in terms of coverage prior to 2040. So prior to 2040, you could have up to a 3000 square foot structure on your property.

After 2040, you can still have 3000 square feet. It can just be in any configuration. It could be a single family home, it could be a triplex, it could be an ADU, it could be a duplex. So it makes the zoning and the regulation more flexible. It doesn’t really change at all the impact in terms of density and coverage. So we wanted to really focus on by-right development. We wanted to say, how could we make single family lots more flexible in terms of our ability to use them to build new housing? And this is the most important piece perhaps, how do we improve access and agency to these neighborhoods for people of color? So that’s the one I want to tackle a little bit. So we talked about this earlier where these neighborhoods have historically been no go zones for people of color. These neighborhoods are the neighborhoods that are most desirable because they have the best access to transit, grocery stores, schools, employment, they have the best parks, they have the best roads.

And so we said, how do we improve people’s access to these neighborhoods where they traditionally, historically, and culturally have not had access to these neighborhoods? So one of the ways you can do that is you build an ADU. Now you can rent that a DU to a person of color. Now they can live in this really great neighborhood where they have great access to transit and jobs, and employment and schools, and everything. The other thing it does is, and this is the part that I think most white people don’t understand, but again, it’s right in front of us, is that agency is a function of where you live and whether or not you own property, largely. We love to talk about how everybody has a vote, everybody has access to their elected official, everybody can come to a council meeting, et cetera. The reality is the way that that local government works is that most of our meetings are held in the evenings, so they are really geared toward people who work a nine to five job. So they’re not people working shift.

There is a kind of issue around agency when it comes to your ability to access that elected official that I think is kind of subtle and not well understood. White homeowners never are unclear about this. They just pick up the phone and call their council members, right? But I found as we talked to members of cultural communities, and in particular members of the black community, I heard consistently, “We don’t feel like we have a voice at City Hall. I don’t feel like I can call my council member. I’m not even sure I know who my council member is. I don’t even know what they do. And I would never go down to City Hall and visit them.” So one of the things that started to pop for us as we did the comprehensive plan is that we looked at this issue of agency and said, how do we improve people’s agency?

And one of the ways to do that is to increase home ownership for people of color and cultural communities. Because once you own a home, that comes with standing, right? Now, I want to say it shouldn’t be like this. This shouldn’t have to be the price of admission to your elected official, right? But the reality is, for a lot of people, that’s how it is. And so we wanted to make sure that at a minimum, the way we were regulating land use was not an impediment to that. We wanted people to be able to say, “I can live here and I can talk to my council member, and I can have a voice at City Hall, so that when I see new policies or a project or an investment that the city’s making, I see myself reflected in that.”

Charles T. Brown:
The Minneapolis 2040 plan has incredible promise. It’s a huge win for planners in Minnesota. But now that the plan is in place, it will need to be implemented. And this is where well-intentioned land use planning can run into some challenges. So I talked to Dr. Jamie Chriqui from the School of Public Health at the University of Illinois Chicago. Dr. Chriqui has insights on how even the most progressive zoning provisions can negatively impact black and brown communities.

Jamie Chriqui:
My name is Jamie Chriqui. I am the Senior Associate Dean at the School of Public Health at the University of Illinois Chicago, and I co-direct the Fiscal Activity Policy Research and Evaluation Network. We have conducted some of the largest nationwide research regarding zoning land use policies from across the country. Many times when these zoning provisions are implemented in practice, they often lead to a community or a neighborhood gentrifying. Although on the surface, they are well-intended, they also have unintended consequences depending on how they’re implemented in practice. With something as large as zoning, it could take years, it could take decades for new zoning provisions to be implemented, because the amount of resources required to build new infrastructure, to create a new trail system, to create a new public transit system. For some places like Chicago, interestingly enough, decisions about things like street improvements are actually not made by the Chicago Metropolitan Planning Agency or the Chicago Department of Transportation.

Each ward, each alderman gets their own budget for street improvements, and they have to make their own decisions about where they want to allocate that money and how they want to allocate it. And so therefore, if an alderman decides he doesn’t want to fix the sidewalks, he doesn’t want to connect to the sidewalks, he doesn’t want to pay for repairing the streets so that people in the south side of Chicago can bicycle on the street without hitting potholes and getting injured, or even just creating a bike lane on the street, that’s a decision of one particular policy maker. And so all these examples in my mind are all related to this broader bucket of implementation, and they can be implemented in a way that could either inhibit the ability for black and brown communities to have access to infrastructure or features in the community that would be supportive of biking and walking or facilitate it.

Charles T. Brown:
According to Dr. Chriqui, it can sometimes be the failure of just one person to equitably implement zoning policy in the community. So in Connecticut, advocates have created a tool to help tackle this problem. The Zoning Atlas is an interactive visual map designed to convey information about the impacts of land use development. The atlas was created by Desegregate Connecticut. Pete Harrison is the director of this organization.

Pete Harrison:
My name is Pete Harrison. I’m the director of Desegregate Connecticut. We are a pro-homes coalition of about 80 groups that’s dedicated to seeing a more equitable, prosperous, and sustainable Connecticut. And the lens of how we do that is through zoning. Once you see the power of zoning as a policy tool, you start to understand how it impacts individual household wealth, health outcomes, education outcomes, all of those things that go into what makes Connecticut and America widely segregated economically and racially really can start at the zoning level. And our big piece of the puzzle that has really been a powerful tool was developing this zoning atlas, which was kind of shockingly the first of its kind across the country, visualizing all of the different zoning jurisdictions across, in the case of Connecticut, it’s 169 towns and cities. Because zoning is allowed to be a local issue of control, everybody kind of does their own thing. And oftentimes when you try to talk about segregation, it can be really hard when there isn’t some visual tool to show what we’re talking about.

So we were able to collaborate on starting the Zoning Atlas, and it’s just a powerful storytelling device to have this conversation about racial and economic segregation in Connecticut. And the really big takeaway for this statewide zoning atlas was just how much zoning creates the segregation we have in Connecticut. 90% of Connecticut’s zoned residential land allows, as of right, single family housing on typically large lot sizes. So that’s why Connecticut is sort of, I think, popularly understood to be sort of quasi suburban state, because it was zoned to be. Inversely, only about 2% of Connecticut allows multifamily housing, townhouses, apartments, condos. Only about 2% of residential land allows that kind of housing as of right. So you have this huge disconnect in Connecticut that’s existed for generations that’s really propelled this amount of segregation. But without this tool, it’s really hard, I think, for the average person, policymaker, planning and zoning commissioner to understand what a series of all these sort of innocuous decisions locally over time can really create this circumstance that we’re in now.

So that’s really what got us off and running and has really shaped a lot of the conversation, a lot of the political action and change that’s slowly happening in Connecticut.

Charles T. Brown:
What does race have to do with this?

Pete Harrison:
Well, just like every other issue in America, race is really at the heart of it. And it’s shocking to people that Connecticut is one of the more racially segregated states in the country. But really when you peel back a little bit, look at land use policies, look at other federal, state, local policies over the last century, it starts to make a lot more sense. And Connecticut has a lot of interesting similarities with sort the broad US demographics. If you look at the 2020 census data, it’s a pretty similar racial demographics by white, black, Asian, Hispanic. But within Connecticut, shockingly, about two-thirds of the people of color live in only 15 towns or cities, and frankly, the five largest cities in Connecticut. So even though there’s some similarities in the broad strokes, once you get down to the town level, the regional level, you start to see the segregation.

And what we try to tell people in Connecticut, it’s this was not organic. This was not any sort of the market working the way it’s supposed to or people making decisions independently. These were engineered to be that way. And it’s not something that’s going to solve itself through one nonprofit organization, grassroots organization, or one cycle of legislation, but it really is a larger organizing conversation. But frankly, even in Connecticut, that conversation that was really ripe in 2020, 2021, particularly legislators and these parts of the state, more suburban white majority parts of the state, were open to these conversations. That has drifted back where folks, there’s a bit of a backlash of racial justice, of social justice. And trying to keep that conversation, that race is deeply tied to this and trying to convince folks even in Connecticut that the segregation that we see consciously or unconsciously is in our towns, that’s a hard conversation for some folks, and it’s been a really up and down process.

But there are a lot of folks that recognize how deeply entwined race is and want to make these kinds of changes, particularly at the local and state level.

Charles T. Brown:
We may never completely undo the effects of racist zoning, redlining, deed restrictions in generational cycles of gentrification. But if we want to achieve racial equity and justice, we need to start calling these things for what they are out in the open. These are the gears of structural racism. I don’t want to minimize the effort of advocates and activists who’ve been fighting for decades, but it is true that many Americans are only now beginning to catch on to what’s happening. Maybe it’s the open flow of information on the internet in the digital age. Maybe it’s the impact of George Floyd’s death on communities like Minneapolis. I asked Heather Worthington for her perspective on why America is still just starting to understand the impact of zoning on racial justice and equity.

Heather Worthington:
There are a number of, I think, dominant narratives. I think in the white community, there’s a dominant narrative about sort of what we would see as black neighborhoods and how the people who live there behave or conduct themselves. And I think that those narratives are false, but they are very affirming for people who don’t want to have a discussion about racism. And so it’s a very sort of easy way to look at that community and say, “Well see, they just don’t care. They don’t care about how it looks,” when in reality, they care deeply, but they can’t get the resources that white neighborhoods are getting to maintain their parks or to fix their roads, right? So there’s a persistent narrative, I think, that really shapes those perceptions, and then in turn, shapes policy approaches. And I think also that from a planning standpoint, I’m not sure we even realized why the community was so racially segregated.

So let’s talk about that for a minute. One of the things we didn’t realize was the strong correlation between zoning and segregation. So when we looked at South Minneapolis, for instance, and contrasted that with North Minneapolis, what we saw was areas of South Minneapolis that are considered today, from a real estate market standpoint, very desirable, those areas had been unavailable to people of color, historically and consistently, until 19, I think it was 49 when the state Supreme Court threw out deed restrictions. But by then, the damage was done, right? By then, those settlement patterns had been set and established and then maintained by the market. So in the 50s, 60s and 70s, what you see is a more subtle form of deed restriction. It’s not an outright deed restriction, but it’s the steering that real estate people did to steer families away from those areas, families of color.

That very thing happened to my husband and I when we bought our house. Our real estate agent said to us, a white couple, “Don’t buy in the neighborhood to the east of you because it’s less desirable buy in this neighborhood.” Right? And she was steering us, even though that language probably wasn’t in her lexicon. But that’s what she was doing, right? She was steering us away from that black neighborhood. So when we look at South Minneapolis, those restrictions were set in the early 1900s, but that segregation pattern persists today, almost 120 years later. So that’s what we started to understand more clearly as planners, as we looked at this data and we started to understand that things were the way they were for a reason. It wasn’t just sort of the invisible hand of the market, which I think a lot of white people want to believe, that the market drives these things.

Well, the market is established through regulation, and so understanding the relationship between regulation and the market is what’s key here. But it took us many months of study and analysis, and also just understanding the history of the community, so going back and looking at what was happening in the 1870s and 80s in this area. For instance, I’ll give you an example, in the 1870s and 80s, prior to regulation, prior to deed restrictions, black families were buying property in South Minneapolis. They were establishing businesses. In fact, a black family owned what is today 50th in France. They lost it through a legal land battle with a white property owner adjacent to them. It’s probably some serious shenanigans that happened there. And that is now today the most expensive real estate in the Twin Cities at that intersection. So black families were making inroads. They were building an economic presence in the community, and that was seen as threatening to people who were white and wanted to live in those areas.

And so they utilized these deed restrictions and other regulations to effectively say, “This is a no-go zone for you. You cannot come here.” And I want to speak to that just really quickly too, Charles. I think that the subtle layer to this is that if you’re a person of color and you’re in that neighborhood today, people understand that you don’t belong. And so there is a subtlety to the racism that persists in that land use. Even though you have every right as a black person to buy a piece of property there today, if you’re there today as a black person, there is an awareness of you as someone who doesn’t belong. I’m doing air quotes. And you’re more likely to be the victim of a police call. We’ve seen this over and over again. So this is the correlation between what I call these no-go zones for people of color and things like public safety and being overpoliced in those areas. So these are the natural progressions that we see in these areas.

Charles T. Brown:
I want to thank my guest, Jocelyn Gibson, Heather Worthington, Dr. Jamie Chriqui, and Pete Harrison. I appreciate your expertise and your time. For Arrested Mobility, I am Charles T. Brown. I encourage you to follow me on social media at ctbrown1911 on Twitter or using #ArrestedMobility. Visit our website and sign up for our email newsletter at arrestedmobility.com. You can follow Arrested Mobility on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, or wherever you listen. This podcast is a production of Equitable Cities with support from Puddle Creative.