New Research: Unequal Zoning Changes and Black City Council Members in Durham, NC

New Research: Unequal Zoning Changes and Black City Council Members in Durham, NC

Previously, we’ve discussed new research from Jessica Trounstine that shows how stricter land-use and zoning regulations in white neighborhoods work as a mechanism for white homeowners to exclude potential black residents and preserve their property values.

In CityLab, UNC Chapel Hill professor Andrew Wittemore discusses his new case study on the effects of race on zoning decisions in the city of Durham over the past 70 years.

[This study] presents quantitative evidence that prior to 1985, racial demographics offer a better explanation for the distribution of these potentially exclusionary decisions than median incomes or homeownership rates. This finding is substantiated by qualitative evidence from plans, records of public hearings, and other primary materials pertinent to zoning decisions affecting residential land use…[S]ince 1985, the city has made residential zoning decisions that have collectively entailed less dissimilar treatment of areas of different racial characteristics, and suggests reasons for this shift based on further research of primary materials. These findings inform us of the role of racial bias in zoning beyond the era of explicit racial zoning in the early 20th-century.

More specifically, “from 1945 through 1984” he finds, “down-zonings occurred in neighborhoods that were on average 71 percent white, and refused up-zonings occurred in neighborhoods that were on average 74 percent white. But the city as a whole was on average only 59 percent white in this period.”

The racial disparity is striking, especially when comparing Durham’s response to similar problems that can be addressed by zoning changes in white versus black neighborhoods.

[L]egislators agreed to increase residential density in a black neighborhood experiencing school overcrowding, but in the same period they reached the opposite conclusion in a white area experiencing the same problem. The clearest disparity in the handling of similar residential re-zoning cases was in public housing, which legislators continued to concentrate within black areas through the 1960s. Another example involved a builder that civil rights activists associated with exploitative practices in black neighborhoods: The city council repeatedly rebuffed his requests in white neighborhoods while accommodating his requests for up-zonings in black areas.

The city council also allowed economic development arguments to outweigh community protest when it came to accommodating heavy commercial and industrial uses in black areas…While property owners and developers were interested in establishing these uses in white and black-majority areas alike, they had more success in doing so in the latter, where the council approved 31 out of 40 requests between 1945 and 1984, despite mobilization against these rezonings (by comparison, the council approved only half of the requests in white-majority areas).

This dynamic began to unravel as more black members of the city council became elected beginning in the 1980s. After 1985, at least 5 of the 13 members of the Durham City Council were black.

These legislators, in concert with a growing number of white allies on the council, began to assert a dominant hand in zoning and other affairs, and spurred by crime and a number of industrial accidents in black areas, began to tackle the uneven distribution of lower-income housing and industrial uses in the city. Consequently, from 1985 on, the racial disparities that characterized the distribution of the various zoning decision types disappeared.

It’s no secret that stricter zoning and land-use regulations increase rents in the areas where they’re implemented, to the detriment of everyone but most particularly people of color.

But this recent wave of research demonstrates that race is a strong motivator to either stop development altogether, or shift it to majority-minority neighborhoods. The ability of local governments to exclude minority residents is compelling evidence of the need to roll back the regulations that make this possible.

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By |2018-07-26T09:20:55-07:00July 26th, 2018|Blog, Land Use Regulation|