Who is the racial justice case for zoning reform for?

Donors and intra-elite competition, not the public.

Richard Kahlenberg published an op-ed in the New York Times this week arguing that “if you care about social justice you have to care about zoning.”

I care a lot about zoning — so much so that I wrote a whole book about it — so I 100% agree that any conversation about racial equity in the United States ought to center land use policy as a critical lever. But on another level, this is a broader example of what our own Marc Novicoff wrote about in “Stop Marketing Race-Blind Policies as Racial Equity Initiatives.” His focus was on the welfare state and redistributive issues, but the same thing happens in other areas, too. It’s become common to make the case for marijuana reform in racial justice terms, for example.

What’s interesting about the housing case is that we just recently had a really good collaboration between Vox and Data for Progress (written up by Jerusalem Demsas) on the question of whether a race-forward framing of the housing issue is a good idea. The answer was: No, land use reform is more popular if you describe it as an economic growth initiative than as a racial justice initiative.

This is not a very surprising result if you take a second to think about it. Most voters like to hear that politicians care about people like them and their problems, and most voters are white. Meanwhile, non-white people benefit from economic growth. The presumption of Kahlenberg’s framing is that the audience is fully bought-in on the need to prioritize racial justice, and just needs to be told how to do that. But this, to me, is the central paradox of contemporary liberalism, which simultaneously holds that racism pervades American society and also that a good way to do politics is to constantly frame things in racial terms.

The way I would put the relationship between housing policy and racism is this: Historically speaking, American land-use regulation is rooted in a desire to uphold residential segregation. But those regulations turn out to be extremely costly. How costly?

Well, in a famous paper called “Housing Constraints and Spatial Misallocation,” Chang-Tai Hsieh and Enrico Moretti calculated that exclusionary zoning shrunk America’s GDP by about 8.9% — or $1.9 trillion. That’s a lot. But recently, Bryan Caplan noted that Hsieh and Moretti made a math error in their paper and the right figure is a staggering 36%. That’s a really big deal. Not just for Black people or for “social justice,” but for everyone, all the time. It’s less that you need to care about zoning if you care about racism than if you care about anything at all, you ought to be less racist and advocate for policy changes that generate more residential flexibility.

Housing is a space where I’ve gotten to have a first-hand view not just of the policy but of the development of a large and somewhat influential activist and advocacy community, so I can shed light on what’s going on here. Kahlenberg, who’s a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, isn’t trying to convince people to support zoning reform. He’s fighting in an internecine battle against left-NIMBYs who don’t like to hear that zoning reform is good because it’s not anti-capitalist enough. The people who are so opposed to market solutions that they’re against anything that isn’t public housing aren’t a relevant force in national politics. But they are a force in left spaces; racial justice is currently an incredibly hot topic for donors, and so pointing out that zoning reform is a social justice issue is a good power move in that context.

Housing scarcity and institutional structure

But I think this framing somewhat misstates what the policy issue is. This is 2021, not 1961, and there are plenty of non-white homeowners who have NIMBY views. And there are also plenty of non-white local elected officials who like the idea of getting to micro-manage every development project.

The issue here is institutional design.

I used to think of the NIMBY problem as a public opinion issue — too many people hate apartment buildings and we need to persuade them that housing abundance is good. But then I met David Schleicher, who’s now a law professor at Yale, and he convinced me the real problem is that we get housing scarcity even though everyone is already aware that abundance would be better.

What we have is a situation where even though almost everyone would be better off with a lot more new housebuilding, perverse institutional design ensures that we don’t get it. New housebuilding creates important citywide (stronger tax base) and metro-wide (housing affordability) benefits, but it also creates local burdens in terms of traffic and parking. So everyone’s views will be pretty literally NIMBY — build more housing but build it somewhere else.

This then leads to a question about policymaking institutions. Lots of people would prefer to pay lower taxes but also maintain the exact same level of police, school, and playground funding in their specific neighborhood. But cities don’t give you that option. You can’t say “service cuts but not in my backyard.” Instead, different elected officials need to strike a citywide bargain about tax and spending levels. What’s unique about housing is that either by rule or by tradition, there is no citywide bargain. Each neighborhood makes its own exclude/non-exclude decision, and since the downside to development is mostly local but the upside is mostly regional everyone opts for less development rather than more.

Sonja Trauss launched YIMBY activism in America with locally-focused actions in the Bay Area. But as she and Laura Foote and Brian Hanlon and others took the movement forward, they’ve found their most important successes in Sacramento — getting a bunch of laws expanding people’s rights to build accessory dwelling units and other statewide pro-housing measures passed. That’s a model that’s worked in Washington and Oregon to limited extents, and that smart state legislators like Ibraheem Samirah in Virginia and Vaughn Stewart in Maryland are trying to bring back east.

The pitch in all these cases is that if you think of zoning reform as a statewide issue, the case is a lot more compelling. You’re being asked to put up with a bit more nuisance locally in exchange for big statewide gains that make it worth doing.

What’s race got to do with this?

Notice that when I talk about the gains to housing abundance, I’m not really talking about anything that’s specific to race — what we’re talking about is faster economic growth, higher real wages, a stronger tax base, and a more productive economy.

But zoning is very much a factor in racial issues. The Houston metro area, for example, is considerably less segregated than Greater Boston. And Matthew Resseger shows pretty persuasively that about half that difference is accounted for by the more stringent land-use regulations in the Boston area. And even though Houston often serves as the poster child for lax land-use rules, the Houston area does in fact have many restrictive policies in place, especially regarding parking. So if Greater Boston wanted to truly become an Yglesiastopia of land use, it could close more than half the gap with Houston.

That said, while not everything about race in America is reducible to economic class, it seems like this really is.

The big picture economics of housing scarcity works like this. Wages are higher in some cities (Boston) than in others (Houston) and that is partially offset by the fact that housing is more expensive in the high-wage cities. But the Boston wage premium is larger for college graduates than for non-graduates, to the point where bearing the higher cost of housing is worth it for professionals but not for working-class people who instead tend to move to cheaper metro areas in the Sunbelt rather than high-wage ones on the coasts. Similarly, in cities with highly elastic housing supply, everyone benefits when a new high-wage employer comes to town. But in cities with strict land-use rules, a new high-wage employer raises housing prices and pushes working-class residents out.

There is pretty strong evidence of racial bias in important aspects of the real estate market like appraisals and what homes you get shown.

But the zoning issue is a pretty pure question of economic status. Race correlates reasonably strongly with class in America, and that’s especially true in big coastal metro areas because the poor white population tends to be more rural. But there is actually a completely parallel issue about land use regulation keeping out trailers and mobile homes that is more relevant in the redder parts of the country and that hits more white people.

So what’s the point of giving this a racial framing?

Antiracism can talk progressives into markets

There is a book called “Urban Planning and the African-American Community: In the Shadows” which I have not read because it’s for sale on Amazon for $83. But one of the chapters, by Christopher Silver, is called “The Racial Origins of Zoning in American Cities,” and you can read it for free online.

I find myself recommending this essay to people fairly often, because many folks have picked up an ambient story somewhere that the origin of zoning is something about protecting people from pollution and factories. This is at best a half-truth. Back when zoning was first becoming a thing in the early part of the 20th century, it seemed natural to the city fathers of the Southern United States to adopt explicit racial zoning codes saying where Black people were and were not allowed to live. The Supreme Court ruled this unconstitutional way back in the 1917 case of Buchanan v. Warley. That admirable Supreme Court decision was handed down smack in the middle of a real low point for the politics of racial equality. So the proponents of racial zoning didn’t give up; instead, they hired consultants to help them craft legally defensible means of promoting segregation without explicitly selecting on race:

The racial zoning movement in the urban South demonstrates clearly how certain social objectives were central to the early planning movement. While scholars have examined the racial zoning movement leading up to Buchanan v. Warley, they have given relatively little attention to important racial zoning initiatives after 1917. It is in this post-1917 period especially that cities hired prominent planning professionals to fashion legally defensible racial zoning plans. Throughout the early 1900s, and well beyond 1917, racial zoning and its objectives remained a mainstay of many American planners. Racial zoning was not just a manifestation of the backward South out of touch with the mainstream of urban reform. Although the South invented and made wide use of racial zoning, the region relied on Northern planning consultants to devise legally defensible ways to segregate Black residential areas.

Racial zoning practices also transcended the South. Select Northern and Western cities, especially those where the Black population increased rapidly, also experimented with racial zoning. The nation's planning movement, not just its Southern branch, regarded land use controls as an effective social control mechanism for Blacks and other "undesirables." According to H. L. Pollard, a prominent Los Angeles land use attorney, "racial hatred played no small part in bringing to the front some of the early districting ordinances that were sustained by the United States Supreme Court, thus giving us our first important zoning decisions." Chicago, too, was a bastion of racial zoning enthusiasts. Despite evidence that the racial zoning movement was national in scope, it initially concentrated in Southern cities owing to the relative size of the Black community (which ranged between 30 and 50 percent of the population in many places), and it then spread northward and later westward in response to the migration of Southern Blacks.

The reason I’ve found myself recommending Silver’s piece is that the people I am trying to convince are generally ideologically motivated college-educated professionals. They instinctively dislike libertarian arguments and would hesitate to identify themselves as “pro-business.” They conceive of urban land use politics as pitting activists or regulators against developers and are disinclined to side with the developers.

The “Racial Origins” story is, I think, a good way to try to create a permission structure for progressives to embrace a deregulatory cause. But the lever here is not mass opinion, but the internecine fights of the progressive nonprofit world.

Make neoliberalism great again

The question of whether zoning reform is an anti-racist reform or a pro-market reform can seem silly: why not both?

But the stakes are in some ways pretty high. Last December, for example, the Hewlett Foundation announced a new “five-year $50 million Economy and Society Initiative to support the growing movement to replace neoliberalism.” But in November they announced a shorter-term plan “to award $15 million to groups combatting systemic racism.”

In other words, potentially millions of dollars in funding are at stake depending on whether zoning reform is seen as combatting systemic racism or advancing neoliberalism. And that doesn’t just matter in terms of your own potential to get funding, it impacts what allies you can have and what other groups will say about you since there tends to be a lot of logrolling and allyship in the activist world and not much actual policy analysis. A separate Hewlett arm makes grants in the climate and energy space, and environmental groups are often torn on land use issues1 and also feel kind of embarrassed about the movement’s historic ties to white supremacists. So if Hewlett anti-racism money were to flow to zoning reform, that wouldn’t just help the cause directly, it would also help zoning reformers win internecine arguments inside Hewlett-funded climate groups.

This is, I think, a general feature of elite intra-progressive politics.

Aside from land use, the other big cause I’ve been very involved with is trying to get more political focus on expansionary monetary policy and full employment. In his memoir, “Eyes to the Wind: A Memoir of Love and Death, Hope and Resistance,” Ady Barkan very generously credits me with inspiring him to launch Fed Up, the first activist campaign focused on these issues. The articles that he says got him wanting to do this don’t say much of anything about race, but he explains that centering race was critical to securing momentum for his project in the progressive non-profit world:

I had laid out a good argument for why the Fed should pursue full employment, but I still needed to tell a comprehensible story about how the Fed should do that and how we could plausibly get the Fed to do it. Over my first months at CPD, Amy and I talked through those questions, and quite soon she had identified the crucial element that was missing from my analysis and my proposal: race.

And later.

So my framing would matter. A campaign pitch about the Federal Reserve and creative expansionary monetary policy would be met by glazed-over eyes and silence. A campaign about jobs and wages would be met by nodding heads and smiles. But a campaign about combatting racial and economic equality by delivering full employment to all communities? That might actually get some people excited.

Barkan’s frankness about this was really helpful and enlightening to me because the monetary policy campaign has been very successful but also very deliberately focused on elite persuasion. The basic question was how could a white activist convince a group of funders to give him money to convince a group of highly educated monetary policy officials to care more about working-class people and the answer was … talk a lot about race.

But that’s not the advice you would give someone trying to win a US Senate seat in Iowa.

Culture war backlash

One problem here is that elite politics exist on both sides. You now have Republicans complaining that the Fed needs to stay in its lane and stop talking about racial equity.

I think it might reassure those Republicans to hear that the equity pitch was mostly a cynical effort to dupe progressive donors into caring about job creation and working-class people’s interests.

Certainly on the housing front, the problem with Sameerah (one of the aforementioned YIMBY state legislators) framing his deregulatory proposal in racial justice terms is it got him denounced by a Daily Caller writer. Similarly, when Biden included an effort to reduce housing regulation in his American Jobs Plan, he got denounced by Stanley Kurtz in National Review. In both cases, you have right-of-center housing specialists saying that the Democratic proposal is directionally correct. Ed Glaeser, a Republican economist, critiqued Biden’s housing proposal on the sensible grounds that it’s not as strong as it should be.

The problem is that the very same racial angles that help zoning reformers win intra-progressive arguments have the opposite impact on the right. I wish congressional Republicans would listen to Glaeser or my friends at the Mercatus Institute. But Tucker Carlson has come out swinging against zoning reform. Glaeser has long done his policy work through the auspices of the Manhattan Institute, whose head Reihan Salam has very sensible views on land use. But Manhattan’s biggest rock star these days is Christopher Rufo who’s been leading the charge against the use of “divisive concepts” and “critical race theory” in school curricula.2

Rufo is not a dedicated land-use writer any more than Carlson is, but when he has addressed it, he does so as an opponent of zoning reformers.

On one level, I think this is just a problem for conservatives to work out amongst themselves. The basic argument that extensive government regulation of economic activity is costly and harmful is something that conservatives should be familiar with. There is even a strand of libertarian thinking that likes to make the point that zoning is tied up with racism as a way to own the libs. If conservatives decide to choose racism over free markets, that’s their problem.

But this is also a clear-cut case in which rhetorical choices are being made for strategic reasons, and those choices have second-order consequences that are also worth considering.

Funders need to think harder about their choices

Here at Slow Boring, everything ultimately comes back to Max Weber and politics as a vocation.

And what I would really like is for funders to think harder about these issues and try to adopt more of an ethic of responsibility and less of an ethic of moral conviction. What does that mean? Well in the ethics of conviction what matters are your feelings and intentions. Your job on this view is to wage the righteous struggle, and a struggle against white supremacy sounds a lot more righteous than a struggle against inefficient regulation.

But to use the social justice jargon of our time, intentions aren’t what matters. And relatively privileged people ought to be self-reflective about our privileges. If there are urgent problems, your obligation is to act like a responsible person and actually try to make them better. Does turning zoning reform into a highly polarized issue of racial conflict make it more or less likely to happen? And in particular, does setting up your grantmaking in such a way that any progressive cause’s advocates are strongly incentivized to turn it into a highly polarized issue of racial conflict make those causes more or less likely to prevail?

If the answer is “less likely,” then you have to not do it. That does not mean that you can’t address issues of race and racism. An issue that’s gotten attention in recent years is that a lack of racial diversity in clinical trials is compromising the quality of the health care that non-white patients receive. There is very strong evidence of racial bias in police stops. These are racial issues and they deserve to be addressed.

At the end of the day, though, there’s a big difference between saying “I want to fund various kinds of work, including some work on issues where race-neutral solutions won’t work” and saying “I want to create financial incentives for everyone to frame their race-neutral policy ideas as racial justice initiatives.” These days there is a lot of the latter happening and a lot of people are responding to it. If you’re in a position to make those kinds of decisions, you have to ask yourself whether that’s actually helping anyone.


There’s a basic tension between the reality that dense infill is good for the environment and the fact that nature lovers tend not to personally enjoy dense cities as a lifestyle.


See “Critical Race Theory and Its Enemies” for my take on all that.