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End single-family zoning in New York City


Democratic presidential candidates from Elizabeth Warren to Amy Klobuchar are calling for an end to zoning laws that entrench residential segregation by race and class, like rules that ban apartments and require neighborhoods to have only expensive single-family homes.

The trouble is, zoning is predominantly a state and local issue, not a federal one. Which means the most important candidate on this subject is someone with no shot at being president: Bill de Blasio. And despite being elected mayor of America’s largest city on promises to fight racial and economic inequality, de Blasio has taken no steps to end New York’s own exclusionary zoning.

The New York area has the second worst black-white residential segregation of any in the country. White-Hispanic segregation is the third worst. The persistence of residential segregation is one reason why New York City’s public school system is among the most racially segregated in the country.

Segregation by income is just as stark. The median income in the community district that includes Park Slope, de Blasio’s home neighborhood, is $137,370. Just next door, in the district that includes Sunset Park, it is $57,870.

These patterns follow decades of government action designed to separate white from black, and rich from poor. At the outset of modern zoning, many cities adopted laws that expressly divided neighborhoods by race. When the Supreme Court struck down those rules in 1917, landowners turned to racially discriminatory private covenants — clauses in deeds that prohibited occupation by people of color — which courts were all too happy to enforce. In St. Albans, Queens, for example, white neighbors successfully used racial covenants to stop homeowners like Sophie Rubin from selling to “Manhattan Negro merchant” Samuel Richardson.

In the 1940s, the city provided massive subsidies for the development of Stuyvesant Town, even as the developer avowed that the project was for “white people only.” And when the federal government began helping families here and elsewhere secure mortgages to promote homeownership, it explicitly avoided lending in integrated or black communities. Explaining why Harlem was too “hazardous” for lending, a federal officer called it “formerly a good residential district with many well built private homes. Now practically entirely negro with many tenements.”

One set of regulations that survive to this day is especially pernicious. Rules that require buildings to house only a single family prevent the creation of smaller, more affordable apartments within the reach of those with lower-incomes. Hefty “minimum lot sizes” — laws that say homes must sit on a large piece of land — ensure that only those capable of paying for a massive property will move in.

Fully 15% of the New York City’s residential land remains zoned for detached single-family homes, including 25% of Queens, home to 2.4 million people, and 22% of Staten Island. Together, these and other rules reduce the availability of affordable housing and, evidence suggests, exacerbate racial segregation — just as intended.

Those who suffer most are the people, especially children, locked out of the opportunities that come with living in more affluent neighborhoods.

But exclusionary zoning rules hurt property owners too. They stop a senior from turning part of her home into an apartment, and deprive her of rental income that might make it easier to age in place. They prevent a young family from building a small addition where grandparents can stay to help with childcare. Many homeowners would see their property values rise if their land could house three families, not just one.

Ending single-family zoning doesn’t force homeowners to change what they do with their property. It simply allows those who want a little extra rental income, or to convert a home into a duplex, to do so.

The mayor once deflected questions about school segregation by insisting, “We cannot change the basic reality of housing in New York City.” But the “basic reality” is that New York City actively promotes race- and class-based segregation in its zoning rules.

While the process of changing zoning can be slow and difficult, there is still time in de Blasio’s tenure to pass a plan to end exclusionary zoning. That plan could allow for the development of duplexes, triplexes or small apartment houses. It could broadly legalize “accessory dwelling units,” and set out rules for the creation of safe, regulated basement apartments. And it could revise other laws, like minimum lot sizes and parking regulations, that prevent the creation of new, affordable housing.

In Minneapolis, a coalition of community groups recently persuaded the city to abolish single-family zoning and allow duplexes and triplexes city wide. Seattle, Durham, N.C., and the state of Oregon are following suit.

While no one policy will integrate New York’s neighborhoods and create the affordable housing our city needs, turning the page on exclusionary zoning practices is a start, and sorely overdue.

Schierenbeck is a lawyer from Brooklyn.