How Philly Politicians Are Unwittingly Adopting the Land Use Toolkit of Suburban Segregationists

Jake Blumgart already blogged Nikole Hannah-Jones’ ProPublica piece at KP on federal politicians’ failure to enforce the Fair Housing Act, and I have a new post up at Demos looking at the state and local policies that the FHA was supposed to combat.

I argue that the main channel segregation works through is local government land use policy:

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.

The real problem isn’t that poor people can’t afford to live in the suburbs, but that central cities are now using the segregationist toolkit and making housing less affordable.

There’s been a lot of optimistic talk about a “back to the city” movement, where Millenials and empty nest Baby Boomers supposedly are rediscovering the appeal of city living. We’ve been seeing some of that in Philly and Pittsburgh the past 3 years. It’s a great trend that I hope to see continue, but already we are starting to see white and fast-whitening neighborhoods using the segregationist toolkit to create fake housing shortages of their own.

Perversely, the politicians pushing these anti-density land use changes often co-opt progressive rhetoric to argue for housing shortage-creating policies.

A recent example is this twisted logic from Philadelphia City Council President Darrell Clarke’s office defending a bill to increase parking requirements and the minimum apartment size:

Although O’Neill introduced the bill, representatives from his office said he did so on behalf of Council President Darrell Clarke, whose staff actually crafted the legislation. In an email, Clarke’s office defended the proposal. A spokeswoman for the councilmember said the bill in question was drafted in response to residents in neighborhoods like Fishtown, Fairmount and the Temple University area, who reportedly complained about hard-to-find parking and students taking parking spots.

Specifically cited was a 40-unit proposal by developers Harman Deutsch, which contained no on-site parking. The idea behind the bill was to prevent developers from pushing a “cost” — in this case the burden of parking — onto residents. The final version of the bill was supposed to be a compromise between resident and developer concerns.

This gets the “cost” argument exactly backwards. Minimum parking requirements are a tax on city residents who own a below-average number of cars, which subsidizes residents who own an above-average number of cars.

Without the parking requirements, curb parking gets tighter, prompting the neighbors who can most afford it to pay for monthly garage parking, and prompting some people to abstain from car ownership altogether.

With the parking requirements, the cost of parking gets bundled into the cost of housing, forcing people who do not drive to pay higher rent. It’s not “developers” pushing the cost of parking onto other residents, it’s the car owners! Likewise, it’s not developers who end up paying more with the parking minimums either, it’s the non-driving renters.

Raising the minimum apartment size also makes housing more expensive. You’re preventing people from making a trade-off between rent and apartment size. People might want to choose a smaller apartment and pay less rent, but Darrell Clarke’s bill takes away that choice and raises the minimum price of an apartment.

Both these land use changes are going to make housing more expensive and price out poorer residents, but both are being pushed under the guise of helping low-income people.

If city politicians are really concerned about gentrification and displacement of long-time residents, then it is absolutely critical that they do not apply the housing shortage policies of the suburbs to growing city neighborhoods.


  1. Why not just use Occam’s Razor here. Traditionally, large, luxurious houses on large plots of land in surburban communities, located around other valuable homes, that have good school systems are valuable. People like valuable homes. Is segregation really a part of your argument?

    Same with the Philly part. People are complaining about students and parking, which they always do in college towns. No segregation component. Why bring it up?

    A special issue in college towns/areas is that single family homes and apartments are often divided and split between several different students with independent income streams. While this one one hand increases population density (which has a good side), it also means that three middle-class students living together can easily outbid a family with only one wage earner for a home. The actual composition of the student community raises the rents for poor families–not segregation.

    Furthermore, often these student apartments have three cars for a three bedroom apartment rather than one. Which naturally impacts parking for the people who live there, and often invest their own lives and money in their communities for the long term.

    It seems fair, in these cases, if apartments are not going to be used for single families, to require some adjustment based on the impact on the wider community. Either that, or restrict renting to non-related people (as happened at the request of the Mayor of Boston).

    • Jon Geeting says:

      Like I said – there’s all kinds of room for plausible deniability and people can come up with all kinds of wholesome-sounding reasons to justify the housing scarcity policies. But these are still the policies that cause segregation. What do you think causes segregation Geoff?

  2. I think the points you cited are more relevant to the challenges of integrating short-term residents (college students) into a mixed use neighborhood, which to me is an interesting urban policy challenge. Interesting to me in part because I saw this play out in Boston a few years ago (where a 3 bedroom house in a crappy neighborhood could go for higher than $2,500 bucks!!! But that’s probably low in New York).

    I think the scarcity has a couple of reasons. One is that in a big city it is very expensive to build due to cost of labor, etc, so if it isn’t high end stuff it isn’t going to get built. Second is that current public housing policy fashion is against large buildings for a variety of (not implausible) reasons, so we end up with lower rises.

    I’m not every going to suggest that people aren’t prejudiced. Just that there are reasons other than race why people get annoyed about development (like buildings full of college students taking parking) and that there are undeniable aesthetic aspects of certain types of suburban development that raise housing values, which people like too.

    • Jon Geeting says:

      Its hard to test your counterfactual theory about aesthetic preferences, since land use regulations are so prescriptive everywhere. I think the only conclusion it’s safe to draw about the built environment is that the current appearance is just a reflection of allowable land use. Developers build as much as the zoning envelope allows. Where developers are allowed to build tall buildings and bundle less parking, that’s what they do. Where they are mandated by government to supply too much parking or build only one house per acre, that’s what they do.

      You still didn’t answer my question – what causes segregation? Why are suburbs so white and cities less so? Why hasn’t America become more integrated racially since the end of Jim Crow?

  3. That is a very good article (I missed the link before). We’ll done.

    I honestly don’t know, and it is an interesting question that I need to read more on. My initial hypothesis would be that (in the northeast and midwest), many African American families don’t have a lot of capital to absorb the costs of a move to a more prosperous place when metro areas decline (like Detroit, Cleveland, etc.). But that seems unsatisfactory for a lot of reasons (it didn’t stop people in the 1940s from moving, when everyone was much poorer).

    In richer societies, aesthetics do matter, at least in the United States and much of Europe, and I agree that aesthetics drive land use laws. I only say there’s more than one reason this could be so.

    • Jon Geeting says:

      I think it’s obvious why we have segregation – the country’s institutions were build on white supremacy. The New Deal barely chipped away at this, and made things worse in some cases. The end of Jim Crow was only the beginning of institutional change. It did very little to actually integrate American society. And the blowback was huge. Look at the fights over the Fair Housing Act. Look at the fights over school busing in the 70s. White suburban folks, especially in the Northeast, really do not want to live near black people. That’s the correct way to draw the causation. The reason black and Latino families “don’t have a lot of capital to absorb the costs of a move to a more prosperous place when metro areas decline” is because we’ve intentionally structured suburban areas to be more expensive. That’s why they can’t afford it. The value follows from the mandated scarcity. It also follows from segregated school districts.

  4. I guess I’m not buying the idea that humans can master complex situations with numerous independent variables. I got it, people were and still can be pretty awful. But that doesn’t explain everything.

    Pick your midwestern rust belt city (say, Cleveland) and its a history of wrenching economic change. How is it that many midwestern whites found it necessary to move and did move (to the Sun Belt) while a larger number of minorities stayed? I have no idea–it is a worthy research question–but I find it unlikely that these economically traumatized whites, who had lost their jobs and much of the value of their homes, simply packed up and moved to La Jolla and Rancho Palos Verdes.

    Are you saying there are NO societal trends that point towards closer integration anywhere in the United States? Really?

    We can get all Howard Zinn/Charles Beard and start getting all angry at The Man, but if these city fathers were so smart, why’d they let their own cities lose economically?

    • Jon Geeting says:

      I think the question is why did some *states* not give *some* cities the tools they needed to stay competitive economically – regional tax bases, transit and education subsidies, etc. The places that actually try to do better on integration do better. Check out the example of Montgomery County, MD in that ProPublica article. Or check out places like Minneapolis and St. Paul’s regional tax base policies. That’s the best way to reduce the harms of segregation. I don’t much care if white people don’t want to live near black people – I do care when this means that black people don’t have access to a fair share of the regional economy’s tax revenue.

      • I think your push for regional tax base is convincing and I think its something that needs more attention, particularly given the way metro areas are developing.

        However, this sort of modeling doesn’t take into account the effect of (often globally-driven) political, social, and economic change on medium sized cities. You could have a “regional” tax base in Ohio (for example) that stretches from Cleveland to Cincinnati and it wouldn’t make up for the fact that the state as a whole is poorer than it was 30 years ago, particularly in the tradeable sector.

        Montgomery County is a great place to live and has a lot to teach us, but it is the beneficiary of the expansion of the Federal Government, particularly in defense and contracting, which is not a replicable state of affairs for, say, Detroit.

        The question is much broader, I think. Given the changes in the world economy and the globalization even of service sector jobs, how do we create balanced economies outside of major metro areas that provide jobs across educational levels and socioeconomic groups, provide some surplus for taxation in support of quality public services and education, while also providing for old age insurance, some level of health care, etc? And to maintain enough flexibility for economic innovation and continued competitiveness?

        It is hard! And I think it needs a hard look at places like Montgomery County and Minneapolis and Massachusetts, but also Texas and Indiana to get an idea of how to trade off optimal in one area for better in another.

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