For decades, the typical narrative of racial exclusion and discrimination has painted working-class whites as particularly deplorable. Its working-class whites who show up at Donald Trump rallies, filled with racial invective, just as they violently resisted school desegregation mandated by Brown v. Board of Education half a century earlier. But this story line has always ignored the ways in which upper-middle-income whites wield their own tools to discriminatetools that are less vivid and less visible but no less effective.
Exhibit A is exclusionary zoning, which outlaws the construction of duplexes, triplexes, and apartment buildingshousing that is more affordable for working-class families, many of them families of colorin affluent areas.
The Biden administration and the Democratic Congress have recognized the harm imposed by such laws. The House-passed version of the Build Back Better Act provides $1.75 billion for Unlocking Possibilities, a first-ever federal race-to-the-top program to provide incentives for states and localities to remove the exclusionary zoning policies that segregate Americans by race and class and make housing less affordable for everyone.
By focusing on exclusionary zoning, the new law could also help upend the long-standing myth that upper-middle-income whites (including some who plant Black Lives Matter signs on their lawns) are relatively innocent in Americas long-running drama of racial exclusion and discrimination.
Consider, as I do in this new report for The Century Foundation, the state of Massachusetts. In the 1970s, residents of Boston made national headlines for violently resisting school desegregation. White working-class Boston residents shouted ugly racial epithets and pelted school buses carrying young Black children with bottles and bricks. Their shameful conduct repelled many white upper-middle-class liberals.
The Biden administration and the Democratic Congress have recognized the harm imposed by exclusionary zoning laws.
At the time, Harvard professor Robert Coles denounced the violence, but as he watched his Harvard colleagues shower disdain on working-class white people, he also began to think about the largely unnoticed barriersthe bans on multifamily housing, and the minimum lot size requirements for single-family homesthat kept most Black people, and most working-class whites, Latinos, and Asians as well, out of the suburban neighborhoods and schools where many educated white liberals resided.
People in the suburbs are being protected by a wall around the city of Boston, Coles told The Boston Globe. All the laws are being written for the wealthy and powerful. The tax laws, the zoning laws, the laws that have to do with protecting their housing and their education. Coles argued that society needed to name and acknowledge that this is a class privilege.
Almost 50 years later, exclusion remains pervasive in the Boston area. In Wellesley, for example, which was home to the federal judge who ordered school desegregation, and where three-quarters of voters supported Joe Biden over Donald Trump in 2020, the population remains just 2.9 percent Black and 5.1 percent Hispanic. The median household income is $197,132.
This concentrated white affluence in certain Massachusetts suburbs is not just the result of the free market in housing; government zoning deserves a big part of the blame. In the relatively diverse city of Cambridge (median household income of $103,154), for example, the zoning code states that the minimum lot size for multifamily housing is 900 square feet, while 15 miles away, in Weston (median household income of $207,702), the multifamily minimum lot size has been set at 240,000 square feet, some 267 times higher than Cambridges.
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Or compare the Boston suburbs of Lexington (median income of $186,000) and Waltham (median income of $96,000). In Waltham, a builder of multifamily housing must comply with 17 regulations, while in Lexington, a builder faces 34 regulations, which gives NIMBY Lexington residents far more tools to delay or stop a proposed project in its tracks. As a result, Boston University researchers Katherine Levine Einstein, David M. Glick, and Maxwell Palmer find: In relatively unregulated Waltham, 65 percent of permitted units between 2000 and 2015 were for multifamily housing, and 35 percent were for single-family homes. Over the same time period, 94 percent of permitted units in Lexington were for single-family homes, and only 6 percent were for units in multifamily buildings.
Zoning laws have an enormous impact on who lives where. A 2010 study by Jonathan Rothwell and Douglas Massey found that a change in permitted zoning from the most restrictive to the least would close 50% of the observed gap between the most unequal metropolitan area and the least, in terms of neighborhood inequality.
Exclusionary zoning is pervasive across wealthy communities in Massachusetts, and has real victims. Consider Samantha, a white single mother who works with stroke patients in a rehabilitation hospital. A few years ago, she was living in Springfield, one of the poorest cities in the state. Samantha (who asked that her last name not be used) was upset with crime in the neighborhood and says, I always kept my kids home. The public schools, which are low-performing, were an especially bad fit for her son, Desmond, who is autistic. He was in crisis every day, she says.
When low-income children move before age 13 to more-affluent neighborhoods, their chances of going to college increase by 16 percent.
In addition to exclusionary zoning, families like Samanthas face discrimination from landlords who are unwilling to accept tenants who use Section 8 Housing Choice Vouchers. Although both race and source of income discrimination is illegal in Massachusetts, a July 2020 Suffolk University study found that Black households often face discrimination, and that voucher holders of any race face the most discrimination of all. Voucher holders were ultimately turned away from apartments 9 times out of 10, despite the law.
In 2019, Samantha caught a major break when Massachusetts created a small program called SNO Mass (Supporting Neighborhood Opportunity in Massachusetts) to help families get around economic discrimination and move to higher-opportunity neighborhoods. Samantha and her kids were able to move from Springfield to suburban Longmeadow, where violent crime is 15 times less common than in Springfield, and where the schools are higher-performing. The kids are much happier. They can explore, they can do much more than they ever did before, she says. Her son Desmond is now thriving in school and there has been a dramatic change in his behavior for the better.
Samanthas story underlines the enormous difference neighborhood can make in a familys life. National research from Harvard Universitys Raj Chetty and colleagues has found that when low-income children move before age 13 to more-affluent neighborhoods, their chances of going to college increase by 16 percent and their income as adults rises by 31 percent. Over a lifetime, that translates into $300,000 in additional income.
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SNO Mass, however, serves just 45 families in the entire state. And it acts as a catapult of sorts to help families surmount exclusionary walls without doing anything to tear down the walls themselves. Broader reform is necessary.
The good news is that growing evidence suggests that reformers can, under the right conditions, overcome the traditionally powerful NIMBY forces. Nationally, Yes in My Backyard (YIMBY) forces have defeated NIMBY voices to legalize duplexes and other multifamily units in areas previously reserved exclusively for single-family homes in Minneapolis in 2018; in Oregon in 2019; and in Charlotte, North Carolina, and California in 2021.
Passage of the Biden administrations Unlocking Possibilities Program as part of its Build Back Better bill would be another big step forward. President Bidens original proposal for the program was $5 billion, which would have been even better. Looking to past examples of this kind of program, President Obamas $4.5 billion Race to the Top program was sufficiently large to encourage states to make changes to education policy (for better or worse). But given the unprecedented nature of Bidens federal incentive program to reduce exclusionary zoning, Unlocking Possibilities is still an important start of a much-needed more egalitarian policy.
And carrots should be accompanied by sticks. As I outlined in October hearings chaired by Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-MO), we also need an Economic Fair Housing Act to give plaintiffs who are hurt by exclusionary zoning laws the chance to sue municipalities for income discrimination, the way people of color can sue for race discrimination. Economic discrimination is wrong, whether or not it results in a racially disparate impact against people of color. And by removing the 1968 Fair Housing Acts extra evidentiary burden of showing that economic discrimination disproportionately harms people of color, the chances of success for plaintiffs of color will increase as well.
Bold reforms are possible if we make the walls of discrimination more visibleand if we tackle exclusion by both race and class. Back during the 1970s, working-class white families like Samanthas were often at war with working-class Black people over schools. But as J. Anthony Lukas, author of a seminal book about the Boston busing crisis, Common Ground, asked: What kind of alliance could be cobbled together from people who feel equally excluded by class, or by some combination of class and race?
The first step, as Robert Coles pointed out a half-century ago, is to recognize the exclusionary walls that keep working-class people of all races separated from opportunity. The second step is to use federal tools like Build Back Better and an Economic Fair Housing Act to begin tearing these barriers down.
This article draws from the authors report for The Century Foundation The Walls of Exclusion in Massachusetts: How Three Mothers Had to Overcome Discriminatory Zoning Laws to Improve the Lives of Their Children.