Natasha Harper-Madison: Single-family zoning is rooted in racism

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A conversation about a proposed rezoning in Montopolis prompted the best impromptu description of single-family zoning that I’ve ever heard in my five years of covering City Hall.

The case involves a large lot at 508 Kemp St. After being told that Council was unlikely to grant an upzoning to facilitate a development that consisted entirely of market-rate homes, the developer entered into a deal with Habitat for Humanity to provide a mix of income-restricted and market-rate units. In the end, they proposed 33 single-family homes and duplexes, 17 of which will be restricted to homeowners making under 80% of the area median income. That’s $62.5k for a two-person household and $78.k for four people. 

Nevertheless, Community Not Commodity, the NIMBY outfit run by Fred Lewis, is still opposing it. In a blog post, the organization mocked the projected, deriding the income-restricted housing for being available to those “earning over 250 percent of the Montopolis neighborhood’s median family income.” The post further quotes an anonymous neighbor who describes the project as a “displacement scheme.”

The deceit is utterly remarkable, especially considering that it’s coming from an organization led by people who are regarded, at least by some, as members in good standing of Austin’s liberal establishment. If this project is defeated, what income range do they think the brand new market-rate single-family homes will serve? It wouldn’t be hard for them to figure out — all they have to do is ask the numerous recent homebuyers who they got to protest the project how much they paid for their homes. 

Harper-Madison took the opportunity to share some thoughts on single-family zoning. According to at least some sources, single-family zoning traces its history to a developer in Berkeley, Calif., who wanted to prevent black families from moving into neighborhoods adjoining the subdivisions he was building in 1916. He feared that lower-cost apartments serving black tenants would reduce property values. And he was particularly worried about a black-owned dance hall moving in.

I’m not usually one for long quotes, but in this case I think it’s warranted. Here’s the slightly condensed version of what she said:

“So he and the other developers, they got the city to do something that no other city ever had: they made it illegal to build anything other than a single-family home on a single lot in certain neighborhoods. So this trend, it began in Berkeley but it spread like wildfire. And that includes right here in Austin, Texas.

“And unlike the racial covenants (that existed on many properties), there really wasn’t anything explicitly racist about zoning, but what this did was it used economic segregation to separate neighborhoods in the city. Single-family neighborhoods were just more expensive because buying a house on a large lot costs more than renting or buying an apartment. And so this is about institutional racist policies, period. Wealth and race were inextricably linked. And there’s not much difference today, frankly. 

“So we’re talking about history but we’re also talking about the present. I think decades of single-family zoning in our metro area has led to an affordable housing shortage. 

“…We really are experiencing what I imagine will go down as one of the biggest movements for racial justice in our history and it’s still going strong. This is the time I think to reconcile for all the wrongs, all the things that are rooted in racism. I think Americans of all backgrounds are really engaged in a new frankly uncomfortable conversations about the role of systemic racism and we can’t miss the opportunity to call it what it is in these kinds of situations. 

“I’m often asked, ‘How can I be an effective anti-racist? How can I do my part?’ There’s obviously a lot of answers to that question but one answer should be to ditch that ’Not In My Backyard’ mentality. Embrace more dense, missing-middle housing types to accommodate more residents with less land, more affordable housing right in your neighborhood. 

“And not only would that help to put an end to our segregated communities, but it’ll also help to create more connected, more prosperous, more vibrant places live for more people in more parts of the city.” 

This is just a small sample of what you get EVERY weekday if you subscribe to the Austin Politics Newsletter

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