Can Austin’s exclusionary zoning survive Black Lives Matter?

Over the past month, every local elected official has fallen over themselves to stress their commitment to fighting systemic racism.

So why aren’t we talking about abolishing single-family zoning? 

By many accounts, Austin is one of the most racially and economically segregated metro areas in the U.S. The most popular explanation focuses on the legacy of Austin’s very first comprehensive plan, in 1928, which created the infamous “Negro District” in East Austin.

Passage from 1928 plan. H/T David Whitworth.

Many other neighborhoods, both before and after the 1928 plan, were built with “deed restrictions” that stated that the properties could only be sold to whites. The most famous example is Hyde Park.

An advertisement for Austin’s first suburb, Hyde Park.

As court rulings and civil rights legislation gradually chipped away at explicitly racial housing restrictions, cities across the country, including Austin, found other ways to keep white neighborhoods white. 

It was made all the easier by the fact that African Americans, very few of whom had any generational wealth and most of whom continued to be denied opportunity for good jobs, tended to be much poorer than whites. Therefore, they were far less likely to be able to own or rent a large piece of property. 

Hence single-family zoning, which essentially creates an income floor for a neighborhood. If you can’t afford a 3-bedroom house, you’re not welcome. 

A large swath of West Austin shows the great majority (yellow) is currently zoned single-family.

In case single-family zoning alone wouldn’t keep the poors out, the city also put in place other rules that created de facto wealth restrictions for neighborhoods. The most glaring example are minimum lot sizes. The 1928 plan recommended 5,000 square foot minimum lot sizes, although the city appeared to ignore that, instead implementing a 3,000 sq ft minimum a few years later, in 1931. Ten years later it was raised again to 3,500 sq ft and finally, in 1946, it was raised to its present level: 5,750 sq ft.

Plenty of families would be willing to accept a smaller piece of property in order to be near good schools, parks and all the other things that characterize Austin’s most expensive neighborhoods. But if you can’t afford 5,750 sq ft, you’re out of luck. The code says you belong elsewhere. Historically, “elsewhere” was the east side. Now it’s Pflugerville, Manor, Elgin and Bastrop. 

Granted, supporters of the status quo will say that they are not opposed to different forms of housing, including small and large multifamily developments. They just need to be on corridors. The loud, dangerous streets where most people with money don’t want to live anyway.

Exclusionary zoning is racist. But not all of its defenders are
Many of today’s proponents of exclusionary zoning are not motivated by racism or class snobbery. Many of them are simply attached to the current aesthetic of the neighborhood and worry that allowing more or different types of housing in their neighborhood will bring more traffic, noise etc. Many of them do not appreciate how their position leads to economic and racial segregation. Some of them are people or color or facing serious affordability pressures themselves. 

There’s also a tremendous amount of confusion about zoning because the people most often requesting changes to the zoning code are profit-motivated developers. The housing that developers are building is always more expensive than whatever already exists in the area, so many people seem to think that if we just don’t give developers what they want, the affordability problem will go away. 

In fact, most of the expensive housing that is being built is at least partially explained by our segregationist zoning code. When you’re only allowed to build one house on 5,750 sq ft, you’re going to build the biggest, most expensive house possible. If you were allowed to build four units on that lot, the resulting product would probably not be cheap, but it would be cheaper and accessible to a greater percentage of residents than the McMansion. 

We’re seeing that dynamic at play at the Grove at Shoal Creek, the massive development at 45th St and Bull Creek Rd. The neighbors who bitterly opposed the development four years ago probably feel vindicated when they look at the prices on the gigantic homes being built there. But those gigantic homes are the logical outcome of the unit cap that the neighbors demanded. If we had allowed the developer to build twice as many homes, we would have seen them drop in size and price. 

Looking at you, City Council
If we are to take the statements City Council members have made over the past month seriously, there’s no way they can defend maintaining segregationist zoning. If they all acknowledge that the zip code you’re born in hugely impacts where you go in life, how can they justify policies that keep the best zip codes out of reach for so many Austin children? 

At this point many of you are rolling your eyes and telling me that of course we shouldn’t take their statements seriously. “Equity” to them is about uncontroversial and largely toothless actions: change some street names, hire a diversity consultant etc. 

Perhaps, but then again, just a few weeks ago it would have been unfathomable to imagine every City Council member committing to cutting funding from the police department. It’s far from clear that that will amount to much either, but it at least signals a profound shift in the policy conversation. 

The momentum created by what is potentially the largest protest movement in U.S. history offers a unique opportunity for housing supporters on Council to make big strides on behalf of housing justice. Natasha Harper-Madison, Council’s only black member, also happens to the most adamant supporter of land use reform. The three other minority members of Council, all of whom represent majority-minority districts with large low-income populations, are allies. The four CMs who have blocked reform also happen to be white people from West Austin. As I stated before, opinion on this issue is hardly dictated entirely by race and class but in this instance the optics are deeply unfortunate for supporters of the status quo. 

Earlier this year Council voted 7-4 in favor of a new code that didn’t go nearly far enough but at least made some progress on new housing. The code is now tied up in court after a judge ruled that, essentially, Council needs nine votes to approve it. 

If they’re seriously committed to building a more equitable city, Ann Kitchen, Leslie Pool, Kathie Tovo and Alison Alter need to rethink their position on land use. More importantly, the other seven need to put pressure on them to do so. 

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