Why Zoning Laws Are Hurting Minorities And Your Neighborhood

June 11th 2015

Kathleen Toohill

A family with one full-time worker earning a minimum wage salary cannot afford a local fair-market rent for a two-bedroom apartment anywhere in the U.S., according to U.S. housing officials.

As ATTN: has previously covered, minimum wage is not, as those opposed to raising it might argue, the sole purview of teenagers working part-time. Eighty percent of minimum wage workers are age 20 or older, and more than 50 percent work full-time.

In addition to demonstrating that minimum wage in this country has not kept up with the cost of living, this statistic speaks to our country’s need for more affordable housing. Families are left to make the best of poor options when they can't afford market-value housing, whether this means taking up residence in mobile home parks that raise rent five to 10 percent every year, or living in low-income neighborhoods with inferior schools.

Resistance to affordable housing

De facto segregation along lines of class and race often results from exclusionary zoning that prohibits the construction of affordable housing within city limits, developer preferences for high-end apartments, and the resistance of wealthier, white communities to the construction of affordable housing.

This month, the Supreme Court will announce a verdict in Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs v. The Inclusive Communities Project. The case addresses the question of whether the 1968 Fair Housing Act, which prohibits discrimination in the "sale, rental and financing of dwellings," also prohibits unintentional discrimination that functions to keep lower income, and often minority, families out of wealthier and whiter areas. The plaintiff in this case, the Inclusive Communities Project, alleges that the way in which the state of Texas distributed housing credits ensured that affordable housing would be concentrated in low-income, minority neighborhoods.

Community prejudice and intractable NIMBY-ism can pose as much of an obstacle for affordable housing construction as government policies and zoning laws, as City Lab outlined in its coverage of resistance to affordable housing construction in Amherst, Massachusetts. This prejudice against lower income, and frequently minority, neighbors, and the resultant de facto segregation of many neighborhoods is especially relevant given the events that transpired at McKinney last week. According to BuzzFeed News, white residents reportedly told black teenagers to leave the Craig Ranch North Community Pool and go back to their Section 8, or federally-subsidized, housing.

Reporter Alana Semuels recently wrote about the opposition in Amherst to the construction of 26 affordable housing units.

“In a zoning meeting about the development, some people said their children had been bullied when they lived in rental developments and didn’t want that to happen again,” wrote Semuels. “Others said there would be too much traffic if the development was built. Still others worried that they would no longer be able to go into their backyards in their underwear. A young boy complained that the residents of the affordable-housing complex would run over the turtles that sometimes appeared in the neighborhood.”

Exclusionary zoning practices are less common in Massachusetts than in most other states, due to state statute 40B, which allows the construction of affordable housing in predominately higher income neighborhoods. City Lab reported that according to Citizens' Housing and Planning Association, from its passage in 1969 up to 2008, statute 40B had enabled the construction of 34,000 units of affordable housing in Massachusetts.

A study from the Journal of Planning Literature reported that declining property values due to nearby affordable housing, despite the fears of NIMBY-ists, were in actuality negligible, and suggested that concentrating affordable housing in isolated and impoverished communities detrimentally effected the inhabitants of this housing, as well as property values.

“Negative effects on property values are more likely to occur when affordable housing is clustered and located in disadvantaged and declining neighborhoods,” concluded study author Mai Thi Nguyen.

Politicians advocating for affordable housing, despite community or developer resistance, include New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, who announced over the weekend that he may do away with a tax break for real estate developers in the future if an agreement can’t be reached regarding affordable housing subsidies. In a previous letter that outlined his "five-borough, ten-year" plan to build and maintain 200,000 units of affordable housing, Mayor de Blasio wrote:

"Affordable housing is part of the bedrock of what makes New York City work. It’s what underpins the economically diverse neighborhoods New Yorkers want to live in. It’s critical to providing financial stability for working families, helping them get ahead and build a better life."

The importance of neighborhoods for upward mobility

As Ta-Nehisi Coates so deftly illustrated in "The Case for Reparations" last year, America’s housing policies have long enforced de facto segregation. Coates referred to research conducted by Patrick Sharkey, a sociologist at New York University, that revealed that black families earning around $100,000 often lived in the types of neighborhoods occupied by white families making $30,000.

"The implications are chilling," wrote Coates. "As a rule, poor black people do not work their way out of the ghetto—and those who do often face the horror of watching their children and grandchildren tumble back."

Coates continued: "With segregation, with the isolation of the injured and the robbed, comes the concentration of disadvantage. An unsegregated America might see poverty, and all its effects, spread across the country with no particular bias toward skin color. Instead, the concentration of poverty has been paired with a concentration of melanin. The resulting conflagration has been devastating."

The challenge of overcoming resistance to affordable housing, and by extension, to more diverse neighborhoods, is complicated not only by decades of history, but also by ingrained and culturally groomed biases. According to the website for Project Implicit, a non-profit organization founded by researchers from Harvard University, the University of Washington, and the University of Virginia, "Results from this website consistently show that members of stigmatized groups (Black people, gay people, older people) tend to have more positive implicit attitudes toward their groups than do people who are not in the group, but that there is still a moderate preference for the more socially valued group… We think that this is because stigmatized group members develop negative associations about their group from their cultural environments."

A recent study from the Equality of Opportunity Project, a collaboration between Harvard University and the University of California Berkeley, reported that the quality of the neighborhood in which a child grew up was extremely influential in determining his or her upward mobility later in life. The study found that predominantly African American areas were associated with lower upward mobility. Areas with higher upward mobility typically possessed, according to the study, less segregation along lines of race and class, less income inequality, higher quality schools, less crimeand more two-parent households.

By relegating affordable housing into the least desirable areas with the fewest resources, we ensure that these inhabitants are denied access to quality education and the opportunity for upward mobility. When African American teenagers, with or without guest passes, cannot use a community pool without being insulted, threatened with guns and thrown to the ground, it's clear that attitudes and policies have a long way to go.