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Walsh '23: To better address inequality, target zoning

In the story of income inequality in the United States, the orthodox view is to blame the top 1 percent. Indeed, this exclusive group has experienced disproportionate gains in income and wealth since the advent of Reaganomics, while everyone else has seen either modest growth or stagnation. It follows, then, that the best way to confront income inequality is to rein in the top 1 percent by raising their taxes and investing the revenue in jobs, infrastructure and education. Bernie Sanders’s frequent rebukes of “millionaires and billionaires” in his iconic Brooklyn accent has become something of a pop culture reference. And Joe Biden has staved off accusations that he’ll raise middle class taxes by arguing that he’d “only” increase taxes for those making more than $400,000 per year. 

By implication, the logic goes, we can just leave everyone else alone and, voila, we’ll have addressed income inequality. But that view is myopic. Perhaps the top 20 percent haven’t seen the massive gains that the one-percenters have. However, they remain to blame for economic inequality for a less obvious reason: exclusionary zoning policies. While increasing income and capital gains taxes and implementing a wealth tax — which will affect the 1 percent — may help fund a number of social programs, including redistributive ones, truly addressing income inequality requires tackling exclusionary zoning as well. 

According to the book The Color of Law by Richard Rothstein, in the postwar period, the United States embarked on a homeownership craze, sustained by the Federal Housing Administration, which insured bank loans for people buying houses. This loan-insurance policy made banks’ down payments for houses far cheaper. But until the 1960s, the FHA refused to insure loans made to Black people attempting to buy homes in white neighborhoods, fearing that it would disrupt racial harmony and lower property values. In essence, the federal government sponsored the creation of exclusive, racially-homogenous communities. As a result, disproportionately white and middle class citizens became homeowners. And since buying a home can generate wealth, the middle class became richer while those locked out of the home-buying craze — namely the poor and people of color — were left out. Discriminatory housing policy dating back to the Jim Crow era is partly to blame for the racial wealth gap.

Such discrimination is now illegal, but exclusive communities linger because the tactics have changed. The municipal zoning board has become the new enforcer of residential segregation. Worries that allowing too much new housing development will drain public resources and lower property values can be a driving force for these zoning boards. These boards tend to include homeowners with a direct interest in maintaining high property values which can also push them to implement burdensome exclusionary zoning regulations. Such restrictions on high-density, multifamily housing units dissuade and even prevent developers from building them. In turn, the regulations depress local housing supply and keep their communities unaffordable to middle- and low-income families. This is not just a theoretical phenomenon — a comprehensive Housing and Urban Development study concluded that when “zoning is substantially restricting the development of multifamily dwelling units, it is a barrier to provision of affordable housing.”

For both redlining policies and now exclusionary zoning,  preserving property values are paramount. Whether or not these tactics actually work as intended is unclear. But what we do know is that these policies have excluded the less wealthy (and POC in particular) from buying homes in high-value neighborhoods or at all. Owning a home can still be an important component of household wealth in the United States, so when you own a home you also have an investment that can increase with time. Whether or not zoning preserves property values, it often excludes minorities and the less wealthy from buying houses — and by extension, potentially from accumulating wealth. 

School funding generally depends on property taxes. So when poor and middle-class families can’t break into affluent communities with high property values, they miss out on high-quality schools. Handsomely-funded schools can pay for highly-effective teachers, stronger early childhood education, better test prep and more challenging curricula, among many other things. Schools in poor neighborhoods can’t. And the research is clear: better schools lead to better outcomes later in life. This sort of residential segregation, wrought in part by zoning boards in upper middle class communities, can initiate a vicious cycle of inequality. Children raised in exclusive communities attend high-quality schools and become more likely to earn an upper-middle class income, allowing them to settle in an affluent community and start the process all over again. Those locked out of these communities attend lower-quality schools, earn less money and are likely to end up stuck in place on the socioeconomic ladder. 

Access to schools and wealth accumulation are just two of many mechanisms through which exclusionary zoning increases economic inequality and reduces social mobility, and neither of them involve the 1 percent enriching themselves at the expense of the lower and middle classes. Rather, the upper-middle class is to blame, often crafting local policies designed specifically to exclude others. Increasing taxes on the 1 percent might lessen residential segregation by redistributing some income, but it will not eliminate the exclusionary instincts of zoning boards in affluent communities. 

Some optimists believe that, sooner or later, enough people will realize that building affordable housing will not lower property values or, that the desire for residential diversity will soon overshadow fears of diminishing property values. I wish that were true, but it’s been more than 50 years since Jim Crow ended, and even deeply Democratic municipalities, including many in my home state of Massachusetts, have retained zoning policies that keep lower-income people and POC out. This yard — which has both a Black Lives Matter sign and a sign protesting a new multifamily housing development — in liberal and affluent Weston, Massachusetts helps show that liberal politics can live alongside unprogressive housing policy in upper-middle-class communities.

There are a few solutions to residential segregation. First, if housing policy occupied a larger role in the national discourse about income inequality — say, for example, one presidential candidate emphasized housing on the campaign trail — perhaps people in exclusive, affluent communities would realize the error of their ways. Second, states may need to step in. While zoning tends to occur at the municipal level, state governments, constitutionally, have full control over local governments. If a town institutes an inordinately restrictive zoning bylaw, the state government could nullify it. 

It will be hard to change the conversation on inequality, since the 1 percent, being such a tiny fraction of the population, is an easy scapegoat. By no means should we abandon plans to increase taxes on them, but we’ll need a conception of inequality that encompasses more than just the super-rich if we really want to lessen income gaps and increase social mobility. 

Matt Walsh ’23 can be reached at matthew_walsh@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and other op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.



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