Zoning is racist as hell

San Francisco was the home of the first attempt to using zoning to enforce racial segregation. In 1885, the city banned public laundries from most areas, to appease homeowners who thought the Chinese-run laundries lowered their property values. 

Between the end of WWII and 1968, the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) enforced an explicit policy of racial discrimination in mortgage lending. Redlining was the practice of dividing neighborhoods according to racial composition. Just one black family was all it took to render a neighborhood “undesirable” and therefore ineligible for federally backed loans. To protect their property values, white homeowners deed-restricted the sale of houses to white families only, maintaining all-white neighborhoods. Where deed restrictions failed, burning crosses were employed.  

The FHA described a portion of the Sunset neighborhood of SF, as a “Still Desirable” area to live. “There are no racial concentrations, and the threat of infiltration of this character is remote,” they wrote. They labeled Forest Hill “Best,” and wrote that it was protected by deed restrictions ensuring that no homes could be sold to black families, and “zoning to single-family residences only.”

The Fair Housing Act banned explicit racial discrimination in housing. But it did not ban zoning restrictions that result in race-based housing segregation. 

1970s white homeowners were so loathe to share their schools, parks, and roads with black families that they began pushing for low-density zoning in order to ensure that black families could not afford to live in their communities. Race-based rules were replaced by land use regulations mandating single-family homes, minimum setbacks, minimum lot sizes, and parking requirements. For example, the Bay Area city of Milpitas banned apartment buildings after 250 black residents moved in to work at an auto manufacturing plant.

Today, zoning still works to codify racial segregation. 

To see the impact of zoning on the racial distribution of a city, simply compare a map of San Francisco’s redlining to its current zoning laws and to its current racial housing segregation. They’re nearly identical. 

Eliminating single-family zoning would vastly increase the number of homes able to be built in SF, which would decrease average rents. It would also open up high-opportunity neighborhoods to low- and middle-income families. Based on a section 8 voucher experiment from the 90’s moving from a low-opportunity neighborhood to a high-opportunity neighborhood measurably improves a child’s future education and earnings. It would also ease displacement pressures on low-income neighborhoods.

Zoning is a tool of racial and economic segregation that exacerbates the white/black wealth gap while exacerbating income inequality and harming economic mobility.





Cathy Reisenwitz is Head of Content at Clockwise. Check out the Clockwise Blog.