Land use regulations that have fostered segregation through explicit racial policies and, after those policies were banned by the Supreme Court, through raising housing costs to levels beyond the reach of most Black renters and home-buyers.

Key Takeaways:


  • Some of the nation’s first zoning codes were explicitly racial. After racial zoning was declared illegal, most cities shifted to a mix of economically exclusionary zoning codes, like single-family zoning, combined with privately discriminatory real estate practices, like covenants and racial steering, to achieve the same ends of segregation.
  • The widespread nature and persistence of exclusionary zoning today - whether this includes required minimum lot sizes, parking standards, or building types - makes many neighborhoods even more unaccessible and unaffordable to households of color who already struggle with generalized issues of housing access and affordability. 


Land use regulation, or zoning, first gained ground in American cities during the early twentieth century. Zoning advocates were a diverse bunch, ranging from progressive reformers to realtors, property owners, builders, and local power brokers. Zoning, in essence, was a way to establish set patterns of who and what could exist where in fast-expanding large cities and metropolitan areas.

Realtors and Chambers of Commerce played a key role in the establishment of zoning codes in most cities across the U.S following 1916. Zoning codes represented a “police power” bestowed to cities by states, and in order to draft them most cities formed zoning commissions that often consisted of important local businessmen–i.e. Chambers of Commerce–and those considered to have the greatest insight into patterns of real estate development and property values–i.e. realtors. These commissions could not approve zoning codes themselves, but they did deliver recommendations on zoning for government bodies that most always adapted them in identical or near-identical form.

Some of the nation’s first zoning codes included racial zoning ordinances, like the one in Louisville, Kentucky, that was later outlawed by the United States Supreme Court in Buchanan v. Warley (1917). When racial zoning failed to pass Court muster, proponents turned to other policies that could achieve the same effect - exclusionary and single-family zoning - that remain on the books and strong factors in determining current neighborhoods’ levels of inclusion and access to low-to-middle-income and diverse households.