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Opinion: Zoning Reform Is a Social Justice Issue

Far from an obscure, wonky local issue, zoning reform has the potential to advance social justice in American cities.
April 22, 2021, 9am PDT | Diana Ionescu | @aworkoffiction
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New York Development

The recent focus on the effects of exclusionary zoning is a crucial part of reforming housing policy and addressing discrimination and racism in housing and land use in the United States, writes Richard D. Kahlenberg in the New York Times. "Although zoning may seem like a technical, bureaucratic and decidedly local question, in reality the issue relates directly to three grand themes that Joe Biden ran on in the 2020 campaign: racial justice, respect for working-class people and national unity." Eliminating "economically discriminatory zoning policies," argues Kahlenberg, is a crucial step toward advancing those campaign goals.

"Removing exclusionary barriers that keep millions of Black and Hispanic people out of safe neighborhoods with strong schools is central to the goal of advancing racial justice." Despite a Supreme Court decision that struck down racial zoning in 1917, new policies like single-family zoning and redlining soon took its place, effectively creating the same barriers for families of color. "Racial discrimination has created an enormous wealth gap between white and Black people, and single-family-only zoning perpetuates that inequality." In fact, "the most restrictive zoning is found in politically liberal cities, where racial views are more progressive," relying on mechanisms that separate households by income and class to keep neighborhoods segregated. "Class discrimination helps explain why, despite a 25 percent decline in Black-white residential segregation since 1970, income segregation has more than doubled."

Reforming zoning, writes Kahlenberg, is necessary for achieving racial and economic justice. "After decades of federal inaction on this issue, Congress must move boldly to embrace the country’s anti-racist and anti-elitist mood to remove state-sponsored barriers that divide the nation’s people."

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Published on Monday, April 19, 2021 in The New York Times
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