Single-family zoning laws are just modern redlining. There’s a better, freer solution | Opinion

Housing issues have made headlines for years — and they should, since solving housing goes a long way toward fixing a lot of other problems. So why are cities still clinging to anti-development policies anchored in a very ugly past?

Consider Kansas City, which saw its share of segregation through blockbusting east of Troost Avenue, racially restrictive covenants in Johnson County and redlining everywhere. Even urban renewal in the 1960s was little more than segregation in an economic development wrapper, tearing many poor communities apart for highways.

We’re past all that, right?

No. Today’s local government land use stack of single-family zoning, minimum lot sizes, setbacks and other restrictions are little more than latter-day redlining. Just like historic redlining in the 20th century, the result is the same: Prices go up, supply doesn’t keep up with demand and “those people,” — once Black and immigrant communities, but today apartment residents, young families and those making a moderate income — find themselves with no place to live.

Zoning is often cast as a matter of protecting public health and safety, or occasionally a sop to neighborhood character. But we should all be clear: Its origins were aimed at segregation.

Once the Supreme Court ruled explicit racial segregation unconstitutional in 1917 (racially restrictive covenants would not be deemed unenforceable until 1948), its proponents turned to single-family exclusionary zoning. Segregationists realized housing regulations could keep Black people and immigrants away from majority-white communities.

Single-family zoning drove up housing costs — a feature, not a bug. If they couldn’t lock people out, they’d price them out.

Berkeley, California, adopted the first single-family zoning ordinance. The 1916 effort, led by a local developer, was aimed at driving up housing costs to control the racial make-up of communities adjacent to his, where his racially restrictive covenants could not reach. (Berkeley ended the zoning category in 2022.)

Today, about 75% of the country is solely zoned for single-family housing — probably the greatest contributor to housing costs (and therefore housing and wealth inequality) in the United States. To the degree that zoning was intentionally segregationist — the evidence for this is overwhelming — it may be the most successful government program ever.

Anyone thinking that a big, powerful government is necessarily a force for good should take note.

Free-market conservatives who otherwise rail against anyone using government power to enrich themselves at the cost of others often cheer on government zoning policies that raise their own home value while driving up housing costs for others.

Fortunately, the fear that relaxing zoning regulations harms property values is unfounded. If landowners can put more units on a single plot of land — such as duplexes, quadplexes or those six-unit apartment buildings that dot Midtown — they can increase land value while keeping housing prices down. That is exactly the kind of development that built Kansas City.

Nolan Gray, city planner and author of “Arbitrary Lines, How Zoning Broke the American City and How to Fix It,” holds up Houston, Texas, as an example of how a city without zoning can be mindful of community concerns without increasing housing prices and cost of living. Those who want to adopt neighborhood level development restrictions can do so without infringing on property rights everywhere else.

Reformers like Gray argue that simply allowing “upzoning” by right — a move to the next higher level of density without needing government permission — is a straightforward way to increase density and reduce housing prices. No one wants to build a high-rise tenement next to your 1920s Sears kit home. But they may want to add an accessory dwelling unit in the backyard, or build a duplex such as those along Meyer Boulevard in Brookside.

City leaders nationwide are dealing with this issue, and many will be judged on what they do to address housing affordability. In Kansas City and elsewhere, zoning reforms offer an opportunity to make improvements through what they undo.

Patrick Tuohey is co-founder of Better Cities Project, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit focused on municipal policy solutions, and a senior fellow at the Show-Me Institute, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit dedicated to Missouri state policy work.