Do Our Land Use Restrictions Cause Segregation?

Do restrictions on abundant housing “enable the wealthy to wall themselves off from other groups”? A new study concludes that they cause segregation in our communities. How can neighborhood leaders address this problem?

I think so yes. One of those most interesting things to me is the way that suburbs do this. Cedar Park has an ordinance mandating masonry percentages and outlaws mobile homes. This means that zoning in Cedar Park creates a minimum materials cost higher than many other cities thus ensuring only wealthier homebuyers. They also have masonry requirements for multifamily (this may be part of why apartments rent for higher in Cedar Park than in Austin).

Here is a link to the full paper.

Here are some key conclusions from the paper:

In this study, we use state-of-the-art measures on land use regulation and income segregation on the 95 biggest metropolitan areas in the United States. We demonstrate that the relationship between land use regulation and income segregation is more complex than often assumed. We find that particular types of regulation, such as density restrictions, more independent reviews for project approval and zoning changes, and a greater level of involvement by local government and citizenry in the permitting process, are significantly associated with segregation overall and of the affluent, specifically when we control for a range of metropolitan area characteristics.

These results have important implications for planners interested in reducing income segregation. First and foremost, we confirm that the local nature of planning and greater pressure from multiple local interest groups regarding residential development exacerbates the tendency to segregate by income. At the same time, income segregation is ameliorated by a higher level of involvement from state institutions. Taken together, these findings suggest that land use decisions cannot be concentrated in the hands of local actors. Planners and policymakers will have to be creative in bringing state or regional land use decision making to fruition, as local actors will not easily give up these powers.

We also find that density restrictions are a culprit in the social fragmentation of metropolitan areas and should be relaxed where possible. Yet, density restrictions appear to lead to the segregation of the affluent, not the poor. This is surprising given the literature on exclusionary zoning, of which density restrictions are a prime example. Relatedly, our findings imply that efforts to force wealthier parts of [the] city to build housing for low-income households, or inclusionary housing, are more effective at reducing segregation than bringing higher-income households into lower-income parts of the city.

Note the call for compulsory “inclusionary housing” programs in the last sentence. As far as I can tell, this suggested solution is pure speculation and not driven by the data in the study. Moreover, previous studies have shown that compulsory inclusionary zoning lessens affordability (and, by the same mechanisms, increases segregation as well).

Very interesting piece of work - thank you for passing it along! Below is another important finding of the study which helps answer the question on whether our land use restrictions cause segregation?, and should also provide valuable input to the discussion on occupancy limits

“The economic segregation of metros is significantly higher in places where cities (not just suburbs) employ more stringent land use and density restrictions. This finding adds important nuance to the conventional view that segregation is the consequence of exclusionary zoning in the suburbs. Density restrictions in the city not only lead to higher housing prices (think San Francisco), but to greater economic segregation across a metro as a whole. As the authors write, “density restrictions are a culprit in the social fragmentation of metropolitan areas and should be relaxed where possible.””