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What is Exclusionary Zoning?

South Lake Union Panorama at NightDowntown Seattle, South Lake Union, Interstate 5, and Capitol Hill at night (Wikimedia Commons Photo/Dllu)

By Zoe Ludwig, Built Green Intern | This is part one in a three-part series.

Back in the day, the West Coast was expansive, idyllic—the land of the American Dream. The privileged few would leave everything they had, come to large open pastures, and build homes for their families for generations to come. But even then, we struggled with zoning, it just had a different name. A history of discriminatory practices negatively impacted marginalized communities for centuries. Believe it or not, it existed here at home: think along the lines of Native Americans pushed out of their homes or non-white communities exiled to less favorable parts. Of course, nowadays, building in the west looks a lot different, as does the American Dream. Every beam laid is permitted; every building has its place; and, ideally, nothing is built out of place. The notion of zoning, however, while transformed, has stuck around.

Los Angeles was the first to adopt a policy of exclusionary zoning in 1908, but it wasn’t until 1922 that the Federal Government passed the Standard State Zoning Enabling Act. This act granted states the power to zone cities however they deemed fit and officially legalized exclusionary zoning. While there are many forms of exclusionary zoning, put most simply it prohibits development of anything besides single-family homes on large lots in specific geographical strata (neighborhood, town, city, etc.).

The issue with exclusionary zoning is in the name—it’s exclusive. Exclusive housing laws push lower-income families out of neighborhoods, limiting access to schools, trails, parks, and even grocery stores. Public education nationwide depends on property tax to fund neighborhood schools. Bigger homes = higher property taxes = better schools. The same goes for many other ‘luxury’ community amenities like public parks and trails. Maintenance and improvement projects are paid for by taxpayers and, again, those who pay more taxes see greater benefit. (Thankfully, Seattle recognizes the importance of green space and works hard to put good parks in all of its neighborhoods though there is still room for improvement.)

The other issue with exclusionary zoning is that it decreases affordability. If only 50 percent of the city is available to those who can’t afford to buy, then the demand for housing outweighs the supply of housing, and those who can’t afford rent or a mortgage get forced out. Decreasing affordability and increasing disparities have documented impacts:

  • The property-tax/education paradigm manifests itself in test scores. One author, looking at "low-scoring" schools and "high-scoring schools, found that homes in the "high-scoring" regions cost, on average, $11,000 more a year than homes in the "low-scoring" regions. This is not only unfair to kids in the low-earning, low-scoring districts, but it is unfair to the rest of the community, which loses the incredible potential from many students who aren’t granted the same resources.
  • Another study found that just a $100 increase in median rent causes a 15 percent increase in homelessness for adults already living in poverty. With the lack of affordable rent options here in Seattle, this statistic is yet another reason to examine our current zoning and its impacts.

While it is possible to prove with significance the economic disparity caused by zoning, studies on race are not as straightforward. Bruce Harrell, the only black Seattle City Council Member, put it eloquently when he said, “housing policies are largely governed by socioeconomic patterns. Yes, we can agree there’s a huge overlap between poverty and communities of color. But to suggest that… there’s a conscious attempt to exclude in terms of zoning decisions based on race—that almost distracts from the issue.”  It is still important to note, however, that while race might not alone dictate housing disparity, the overlap of poverty and communities of color, combined with various systematic failures and the continuing ramification of past housing injustices, create an undeniably unsustainable system in which the rich and the white frequently end up on top. If we focus zoning reform on creating affordable living options for all, we will make progress in addressing disparities and affordability.


Interested in this complex topic? At this year’s Built Green Conference, we are hosting a panel called From Exclusionary to Inclusionary: How Can We Make Our Region Inclusive, Resilient, and Vibrant? featuring Alan Durning of Sightline Institute, candidates for Seattle public office, and experts on environmental justice and community participation. Register for the conference today—ticket prices increase September 1!


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