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NIMBY Zoning and the Zombie Issues of Equitable Funding and Desegregation

August 23, 2018

As a graduate student at Penn in 1971 I wrote a paper for an education law course describing how exclusionary zoning contributed to the inequitable funding and segregation that existed in Pennsylvania at that time. 47 years later nothing has changed… Indeed, as an Upshot article by NYTimes reporter Emily Badger indicates, things have only gotten worse.

Ms. Badger’s “The Bipartisan Cry of ‘Not in My Backyard‘” describes how zoning laws and local regulations make it impossible for the federal government to enact legislation that would make it possible for middle and low income homes to be built in high income neighborhoods or communities. And as a result, a proposal by an unlikely source—HUD Secretary Ben Carson— is even MORE unlikely to see the light of day. Ms. Badger opens her op ed piece with this overview of the situation:

Ben Carson, the secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, wants to spur construction of mixed-income, multifamily housing all over the country. If we had more of it, he argues, homes would be affordable to more families, and they’d have more options of where to live.

He is probably right. But the kind of housing he describes is impractical, illegal or too costly to build in much of the United States today, in suburbs and big cities alike. Blocking it are: zoning rules that allow only single-family homes; laws that dictate the size of yards; elaborate permits that drive up development costs; and rules that grant neighbors a veto over what is built.

As Ms. Badger describes in detail, zoning is ultimately a local issue and when homeowners are presented with any modifications that open the door for less affluent residents to move in they often vote as a block in opposition to such changes no matter what their political affiliation is.

Mr. Carson framed the idea in traditionally conservative terms: the logic of rolling back regulation. But conservative communities and Republican voters are among those who’ve pushed to tightly regulate development. Democrats have done the same. Nimbyism knows no party limits.

Politicians seem to recognize this rare bipartisanship when they offer solutions to inequity and segregation. Instead of trying to change the thinking of homeowners about the impact of zoning, they prefer changing funding formulas at the state level to address the inequity that results from exclusionary zoning and offering “choice” to those who are trapped in communities or neighborhoods that cannot afford residences in affluent areas. And imposing federal guidelines for land use is a non-started even tough it is clear that local guidelines exacerbate economic and racial inequality.

“Local control in the history of land use is synonymous with the generation of exclusivity, or the funneling of people into bad neighborhoods, or building refuse and recycling plants right in the heart of the black neighborhood,” said Jessica Trounstine, a political scientist at the University of California, Merced, who studies segregation. “That’s what land-use regulation does. The more local control you have, the more this happens.”

She has found that people who live in whiter neighborhoods today are more supportive of restrictive development, and that cities that were whiter on average than their respective metropolitan areas in 1970 have more restrictive land use in the 21st century, a pattern that helps explain why segregation persists.

SO how do we get out of this vicious cycle of economic and racial segregation? It does not appear that anything can be accomplished politically at the national level:

It’s not even clear which party is better suited to promoting development, given that it could equally be framed as unshackling private interest from regulation, or extending benefits to the poor. Before Mr. Carson, the Obama administration also argued for easing land use regulation. HUD did the same with Jack Kemp, when he served as housing secretary under President George H.W. Bush, in a weighty report lamenting the country’s “pervasive Nimby syndrome.”

Those messages, from officials in both parties, have been overpowered by the reality that the federal government can do little about fundamentally local laws, and by the bipartisan will of homeowners. The instinct to protect property values may be too deeply ingrained in America to change.

So what CAN we do? The easiest solution would be to strengthen the schools in the poorest neighborhoods by providing them with the same per pupil spending as the most affluent districts offer. If Americans want to protect their property values AND provide equitable opportunities for their less affluent neighbors without inviting them into their de facto gated enclaves they need to pay some kind of premium to do so. What would that premium be? Perhaps higher income taxes, a surcharge on their property taxes, or maybe a sales tax on “luxuries” like landscaping, third cars, or floor space beyond, say, 2000 square feet. But this kind of premium is predicated on the principle that Americans want to provide equitable opportunities for all… a principle that seems to be absent from any public discourse in our current political landscape.

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