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Rick Mohler: A Reckoning With Single-Family Zoning's Impact on Racial Equity—and on Architects’ Livelihood
Architect Magazine
Washington, DC, USA
Media, Architecture, Interior Design
Rick Mohler
Date Published: 
Neighborhoods,Architecture, Housing, Urban Design, Planning, Racial Equity, Black Lives Matter, BLM, Discrimination, Opinion
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2020-10-27 21:06:21
2020-10-27 21:09:41
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City of Seattle
Zoning laws in cities nationwide continue to preserve the legacy of redlining, excluding many people of color from homeownership—and many architects have a stake in the game.

The Black Lives Matter movement has prompted a closer examination of the federal, state, and local policies that have systematically denied people of color the access to education, employment, public space, personal safety, and intergenerational wealth that so many others take for granted. One of these policies is single-family zoning, which many cities used as an explicit tool to racially segregate the U.S. beginning in the 1920s and, in the process, deny countless people of color access to homeownership, the most powerful wealth-building tool available to families.

Zoning policies in most U.S. jurisdictions were established in the 1920s; racially exclusionary zoning and restrictive covenants followed shortly thereafter. These policies prevented households of color from living in most neighborhoods, forcing them instead into less desirable areas such as industrial zones and neighborhoods lacking schools, parks, tree canopy, and quality housing stock. While Black people bore the brunt of these policies, Asian, Jewish, Hispanic, and Indigenous households were sometimes excluded as well.

In 1933, the federal government created the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC) to refinance home mortgages at risk of foreclosure due to the Great Depression. HOLC loans—amortized loans with lower interest rates than the then-prevalent interest-only loans in which the principal was due in full at the end of loan—made homeownership more accessible. However, HOLC also institutionalized the segregationist practice of redlining, the color-coding of neighborhoods by the level of investment risk. Lending regulators would produce city maps that denoted red areas as “hazardous,” yellow as “definitely declining,” blue as “still desirable,” and green as “best.” The hazardous areas typically were the same neighborhoods where households of color were forced to reside through racially exclusionary zoning and restrictive covenants. Households here consequently found it difficult or impossible to gain access to mortgage financing and, thus, the wealth-building capacity of homeownership. This limited their financial ability to move from the neighborhood even after racially exclusionary zoning and restrictive covenants were lifted.

Single-family zoning itself has played a role in this explicit government plan to segregate the country. When planned segregation through racially restrictive zoning was deemed illegal by the Supreme Court in 1917, St. Louis’s first planning engineer, Harland Bartholomew, proposed using single-family zoning to achieve the same end. The principle was simple: Make housing artificially expensive through minimum lot sizes and detached structures, and cities would segregate by class and race. Bartholomew would later take his idea to cities across the country.

Today, many fast-growing U.S. cities, such as Seattle, Portland, Los Angeles, and Charlotte, continue this legacy by reserving 75% to 85% of their residential land for detached houses at suburban densities. This has the doubly negative impact of artificially constraining housing supply and driving up costs—forcing many lower- and middle-income families farther away from job centers and imposing on them long, costly, and carbon-intensive commutes. Not coincidentally, the zoning maps in these cities closely approximate the HOLC redlining maps with previously red areas now zoned largely for multifamily, commercial, and industrial uses and blue and green areas zoned for single-family. Because these cities have directed nearly all of their recent development to those red and yellow areas while putting single-family zones off-limits, many households of color have been displaced from their communities to locations further outside of the city.

Challenging the status quo of single-family zoning is contentious as, for many, the detached single-family home embodies the American Dream. This is an especially difficult discussion for many architects, including myself, who view stand-alone houses as among the more creative endeavors in practice, have made their living designing them, and who own one themselves. But we also must be honest about the segregationist consequences of creating cities where nothing else is allowed on vast land areas. We must be wary of the terms and arguments used to preserve that status quo, such as “neighborhood character,” which too often connotes “white” and “affluent” as much

Organization Mentioned:
HUD | U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development
Washington, DC, USA
Government, Housing, Urban Design