A new study by Jessica Trounstine finds a strong relationship between the share of white homeowners in an area and support for restrictive zoning measures that encourage segregation by pricing out potential residents of color.
High levels of racial segregation persist in the United States. We argue that land use control is an important tool for maintaining this pattern. Cities have the capacity to make housing and public goods available or not, thereby affecting the demographics of the community. Since the early 20th century white communities have invested significant effort into protecting their homogeneity. We draw on precinct level initiative elections from several California cities to show that, even today, whiter neighborhoods are more supportive of restricting development. We draw on ballot statements to offer evidence that voters were likely to have understood the consequences of their vote for density, housing prices, and housing availability – which in turn, affect segregation. Then, we show that these results are also reflected in the aggregate. Cities that were whiter than their metropolitan area in 1970 are more likely to have restrictive land use patterns in 2006. We use distance from slave ports as an instrument for the city’s racial makeup. Finally, relying on Federal Fair Housing Act lawsuits to generate changes in land use policy, we show that restrictive land use helps to explain metropolitan area segregation patterns over time. In sum, we build a compelling case for the important power of land use in maintaining racial segregation.
Trounstine’s analysis is based on a review of the literature related to urban segregation, finding that the preferences of white voters for racially homogenous neighborhoods (particularly in the context of school districts) creates an incentive for residents to vote for ballot measures that preserve segregation by making development more difficult.
In order to preserve neighborhood character, however, exclusionary homeowners must turn to regulation, because the incentives of individual homeowners make it “lucrative for a white homeowner to sell her home to a black buyer in a neighborhood that has been historically white; especially when black housing options are restricted and when the black population is expanding.”
But what if these voters are, in fact, unaware of the negative consequences of their actions? The study finds that based on local coverage of different zoning measures, instead of being ill-informed do-gooders who do harm, voters are likely aware of the exclusionary effects of the measures they vote for.
Thus, either through information contained in the voter guide, or local news reports, it is likely that California voters understood what was at stake when they cast their ballots. New development was purported to lower housing costs and increase access to the housing market, while increasing density, traffic, and a loss of open space. However…support for land use restriction was not uniform across neighborhoods. Places with greater concentrations of white residents were more likely to support development restriction.
These results show that restrictiveness in land-use and zoning regulations is the result of self-interest on the part of homeowners who are likely aware of the broader implications of their vote. There’s little doubt that economic ignorance or misguided arguments about the benefits of stricter land-use regulations play a role in support for restrictive development policies, but the motivations of self-interested white homeowners is another clear obstacle to more equitable urban development.