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Segregation Forever?

Nikole Hannah-Jones has written an important article for ProPublica about how the Fair Housing Act has failed to reduce racial segregation in America's housing market since its passage in 1968 -- or more accurately, how the FHA has been failed by a bipartisan political consensus against activist integration policy from the federal level.

Nikole's piece focuses on the betrayal of the spirit of the law at federal level, but it's also worth remembering what kinds of policies and behaviors the federal law was trying to combat at the local and state level. Then as now, the primary tool of segregationists is land use policy.

Back in the heyday of de jure segregation, people used to pass cartoonishly racist zoning laws. Stuff like:

Cities and towns began adopting zoning codes that designated neighborhoods as all-white and all-black. When the U.S. Supreme Court struck down those laws as unconstitutional, real estate agents wrote "codes of ethics" that included bans on selling homes to African Americans outside of black areas. In some cities, white residents responded to the arrival of black families with riots, home bombings, and cross burnings. They formed associations dedicated to blocking even a single black family from moving in.

But as time moved on, segregationists had to resort to less blatantly-unconstitutional zoning practices. No longer able to simply ban black folks from their neighborhoods, segregationists resorted to trying to price them out instead.

The new tools for making white neighborhoods more expensive included regulations like minimum lot size rules, maximum lot occupancy rules, building height limits, and mandatory minimum parking requirements.

It's not that these regulations are exclusively about race. There are a range of wholesome, if mistaken, reasons why these kinds of policies are so popular with homeowners and municipal politicians.

But make no mistake -- these are some of the most important channels that segregation works through, and what they have in common is that they're designed to cap the supply of housing, and make neighborhoods more expensive.

When you make it illegal to build a house on less than an acre of land, you're making housing more expensive. When you make it illegal for a residential building to take up more than 50% of the property, you're making housing more expensive.

When you make it illegal for a developer to build more than one housing unit on a piece of land by limiting how much air space s/he can use, you're making housing more expensive. And when you force developers to bundle parking spaces with housing, or worse, reject new housing units because the plans don't have "enough" parking, you're making housing more expensive.

Since the average American black person earns less than the average American white person, it's easy to see how land use regulations that create fake housing shortages in expensive neighborhoods will reliably produce racial segregation.

There's a huge amount of room for politicians and homeowners to plausibly deny that that's the goal. But that's what these kinds of regulations actually do, regardless of whatever people want to say the real goal is. If we want to reduce racial segregation, we need to stop creating fake housing shortages.

The persistence of the bipartisan consensus against activist integration policies should give pause to anyone hoping for a quick resolution to the segregation problem. Lots of white folks really, really don't want to live near black folks, and American history is replete with examples of scary, violent white backlash against government initiatives to promote integration. The politics has a long way to go to catch up to the moral ideal.

While we're working toward the longer-term goal of racial and economic integration in housing, we also need to be working in the short-term to reduce the practical harms of segregation.

A recent report by the Center for Housing Policy and the Center for Neighborhood Technology showed that housing and transportation costs are rising faster than American incomes, especially for the poor and the middle class since these basic needs account for a larger share of their spending.

For those of us who are concerned about stagnating middle class wages, this is a huge problem. The situation calls out for public policies that reduce the market prices of housing and transportation, so that poor and middle class folks can have more disposable income to spend on the other needs and wants in life, beyond mere subsistence.

The real tragedy, as I see it, is not that poor people can't afford to live in the suburbs -  it's that so many urban areas are now adopting the modern segregationist zoning toolkit, and creating fake housing shortages of their own.

Perhaps in an effort to attract higher-income whites back to city living, or just placate residents who are paranoid about parking availability, too many urban areas have been copying the policies that make suburban housing expensive -- capping the housing supply through anti-density zoning restrictions and driving up rents, and engendering dependence on private automobiles.

While progressives are waiting for white people to stop acting so crazy and learn to love mixed-income neighborhoods, we need to focus on reducing the prices of housing and transportation in the cities where lower income folks already live, and creating even more places where it's cheap to live and easy to get around without a car.