Zoning as civil rights battleground

AJ Mastav
4 min readMay 20, 2021
The Suburban Mandala (photo by Matthew Henry)

Americans are probably more obsessed with decorative mulch than any other civilization has ever been. Every spring, America’s big box stores pile up plastic bags of colored wood chips in their parking lots so that suburban homeowners can try to sculpt the perfect lawn. A perfect lawn, a perfect house, a perfect neighborhood — is it really too much to ask?

When it comes to shaping a community, the tool that Americans use is even less exciting than mulch: it is zoning. Zoning is a topic so boring that it is inherently funny, as The Onion has proven time and time again.

And yet, the ability to decide, as a community, what can be built and where it can be built, is clearly very important. If you own a house on the edge of a residential zone, you care what the next “zone” over is. Living next to an industrial zone might mean that your new neighbor will be an odor-spewing factory. Living next to a farm that gets re-zoned as housing can mean that you now have 2,000 new neighbors, all coming and going with mulch-laden minivans.

Where zoning is really used as a hammer is in determining, albeit indirectly, how much it costs to live in a place. A community cannot really control the cost of a house — if the seller wants to sell it for a dollar, the seller can do that. But a community can say: you cannot build a home on a piece of land smaller than an acre, or you can build an apartment building, but there can’t be any one-bedroom or studio apartments. Build enough conditions into the zoning of living space, and you can basically wink and nod your way into an exclusive enclave that keeps out “a certain kind” of person. Poor people.

Simple economics would say that if there is likely to be plenty of demand for affordable housing in a nice community, the supply of affordable housing will materialize. But there are plenty of reasons for the members of an affluent community to use the power of zoning to ensure that, on average, the community remains affluent.

This kind of exclusionary zoning has been fought over for decades. But it has never been a major national political issue. In the waning months of his campaign, Trump attempted to turn the question into a scare tactic: elect Biden and he will strip your community of its ability to control what gets built where. The fact that…

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AJ Mastav

Professional planner, unprofessional writer. Member of the American Institute of Certified Planners. Also, a former Sunday School teacher.