Zoning solutions often don’t address the needs of populations

Photo by: Jose Martin Ramirez Carrasco on Unsplash

Zoning practices today do not address the needs of vast swaths of people. 

Zoning has a complicated history. What started as a fairly straightforward way of designing what land would be used for what, has become a matrix of competing interests that implicates lobbyists, lawyers, planning consultants, government agencies, land-use experts, and more. In 1916, New York City’s inaugural zoning code was 85 pages, in 2019 the city’s code was nearly 3500 pages long. 

When imagining how zoning practices are problematic we often focus on what was explicitly harmful in zoning practices of the past. The primary example is that as a part of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal initiatives after the Great Depression, the Federal Housing Agency (FHA) insured mortgage payments so lenders would take on less risk thus opening the space for low income families affected by the recession to get homes and pay their principal reliably through a government backstop. 

As part of the stipulations made in deals to banks, the FHA asked for special requirements such as spaced housing, increased construction and racial segregation. Red and yellow lines were drawn on zoning maps to denote that African American and/or immigrant families dwelled in those areas and therefore were bad investments bound to go rotten. 

This meant that white suburban neighborhoods flourished and expanded and because of those property taxes collecting more on average for the local school, these suburban neighborhoods often had better education outcomes creating a cycle of quality-of-life inequality, the legacy of which is still felt today. 

In Canada as well, redlining was practiced and was caused specifically by suburban development. This is noticeable in Hamilton, Ontario where industrial lakeside residences were massively disinvested with the rise of the suburbs in the Mountain and West End. 

Redlining was outlawed in the wake of the Civil Rights Movement with the Fair Housing Act of 1968, however zoning practices continue to fuel inequality in less explicit ways to this day. 

Framing is important here: zoning has to do with future uses of land and what’s permitted after a type of zoning is ratified, whereas urban planning has to do with how things will be built and for whom. Urban planning has to dip its toes into zoning, of course, but this distinction is important for thinking through equitable housing as Samuel Stein of Jacobin points out. 

What needs to be altered is the amount of control capital has in construction through zoning lobbying. 

For example, Hamilton is constructing a Light Rail Transit system as promised in Andrea Horwath’s mayoral campaign platform. Justin Trudeau has stated that affordable units will be ensured to be built by the transit line but this is largely contingent on if the public tracts of land are preserved for low income housing or, as is often the case, sold to the highest bidder which leads to gentrification. 

This is why Bernie Sanders’ 2020 platform for universal rent control plus public housing to aid the supply shortfall from controls should be taken seriously before getting caught in debates around what types of zoning are desirable. If you start from a place where affordable housing is paramount, then zoning becomes epiphenomenal to that initiative. 

As is often the case, changes to zoning for inclusionary housing have to go through long variance appeals with municipal governments that can stretch for years and cost a lot of money. 

Public housing with rent control means controlling for the lack of capital investment in housing as it won’t be as desirable to compete in rent controlled markets, which public housing will cushion for and people will have homes. The more housing becomes vertical deposit boxes for speculators, meant solely for exchange-value, the less credulity we have in trusting capital with our housing. 

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