The two political party conventions are now behind us, and the candidates have set out to bring their cases to the nation. But one one particularly vivid moment from the conventions lingers: the presentation by Mark and Patricia McCloskey, the White gun-brandishing couple from St. Louis, at the Republican National Convention.
The McCloskeys, who have been charged with pointing guns at Black Lives Matter demonstrators, spoke in support of gun rights and the police, which was predictable. But then, seemingly out the blue, Patricia McCloskey took the discussion in a different direction. She warned that Vice President Joe Biden wanted to end “single-family zoning,” a change which she claimed will bring “crime, lawlessness, and low-quality apartments into now-thriving suburban neighborhoods.”
To what was she referencing, and what does her bringing the issue up at the moment mean?
A Legacy of Exclusion
The single-family home has a prized place in American culture. It is a symbol of success, with or without the white picket fence. But Mrs. McCloskey was not talking about the ability to purchase a single family home: rather, she was referring to the desirability of government fiats that ban people from building anything else. No duplexes. No triplexes. No low-rise apartment buildings. Support for this heavy-handed government policy is paradoxical, to say the least, for a political party not normally known to support government regulations constricting property rights.
Support for this heavy-handed government policy is paradoxical, to say the least, for a political party not normally known to support government regulations constricting property rights.
Single-family zoning is pervasive in the United States, and today is usually justified with seemingly benign references to the need for having sufficient parking or preserving green spaces. But here the McCloskeys brought right to the surface the normally unstated rationale: that if you allow into your neighborhood anyone who can afford a multifamily unit, a parade of undesirable and chaotic things will follow. To aid viewers who might have trouble envisioning the complexion and behavior of these potential new neighbors, the convention had moments earlier displayed vivid images of mostly Black protesters shouting curse words.
The whole presentation would not have surprised early supporters of single-family zoning. The policies arose, as historian Richard Rothstein has demonstrated, shortly after the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its 1917 decision, Buchanan v. Warley, which struck down zoning laws that forbade Black people from buying in White neighborhoods. “Economic zoning was rare in the United States before World War I,” Rothstein notes, “but the Buchanan decision provoked urgent interest in zoning as a way to circumvent the ruling.” Single family zoning effectively excluded most African-American families from higher-income, predominantly White neighborhoods without any explicit reference to race.
An important new study conducted by Alexander Sahn of UC Berkeley found that those cities which had the highest rates of Black migration from the South from 1940 to 1970 have the most exclusionary forms of zoning. In Milpitas, California, a suburb of San Jose, for example, the town adopted a policy of banning apartments and allowing only single-family homes, shortly after 250 African Americans were transferred to work in a nearby Ford auto plant.
Why the Exclusion Must End
When Minneapolis officials recently moved to eliminate single-family zoning citywide, they explicitly pointed to the racist roots of the policy. Through much of the first half of the twentieth century, banks in Minneapolis and elsewhere refused to provide loans in areas marked by red lines on a map. “Today’s zoning is built on those old redlining maps,” said Minneapolis’s long-range planning director Heather Worthington.
Exclusionary zoning also drives up housing prices because it artificially creates a scarcity of housing supply. President Trump’s housing and urban development secretary Ben Carson endorsed Minneapolis’s plan to eliminate single-family zoning when he visited the city in 2019, saying, “The more zoning restrictions and regulations, the higher the prices and the more homeless people.”
But that was then. In a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed, Carson and Trump teamed up to oppose Minneapolis’s decision to legalize duplexes and triplexes citywide. The duo condemned “a relentless push for more high-density housing in single-family residential neighborhoods.” In a press conference, Trump warned that Biden and vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris would bring about a “suburban invasion“—language reminiscent of Trump’s fear-mongering over caravans of immigrants in 2018.
Trump is trying to appeal to White suburban women who now live in safe neighborhoods with good schools. But there are many more hard-working mothers, many of them women of color, who are looking for precisely the same thing, and are shut out by exclusionary zoning laws.
When a program in Columbus, Ohio, called Move to PROSPER offered up the chance for low-wage single mothers to live in safe communities with strong schools in 2018, more than 300 families applied for ten spots. Consider Tehani, a Hispanic single mother with three school-aged children who at the time lived in Columbus. (She asked that her last name not be used.) As I outlined in a recent Century Foundation report, Tehani and her kids lived in a Columbus apartment that was infested with bugs, and with a front door that did not lock properly. A small outdoor swing set was stolen from the front porch. “Who does that?” she asked. The schools her kids attended were mediocre, and she wanted more arts programming for them.
With support from Move to PROSPER, Tehani, who works as a human resources manager at Scotts Miracle-Gro Company, was able to move with her kids to the Columbus suburb of Dublin. The community has well-resourced, relatively high-performing schools. She says she doesn’t have to worry about crime, and her swing set sits undisturbed. “It makes a big difference,” she says.
Fair Housing Should Be a Right, Not a Luxury
There are lots of people like Tehani who would like to be suburban moms but are unfairly shut out by government zoning policies. Some of them even include Trump’s core constituency: White people without college degrees.
Many of the heroes of the COVID-19 pandemic hail from America’s multiracial working class—grocery clerks, truck drivers, and emergency medical technicians. It’s time to end government-sponsored discrimination against them.