Cities across America share a long history of exclusionary and discriminatory housing policies, and local officials increasingly acknowledge the continuing effects of these policies on current housing disparities. This post builds on the conversation from our Reckoning with Segregation panel to share examples of strategies that cities across the country are using to confront and remedy past planning decisions that have fueled persistent segregation and inequality. We first discuss the tools that some cities have used to identify the origins of their present-day housing disparities and then highlight examples of local initiatives aimed at remedying them.
Examining historic and current data
The first step for many places involves a careful examination of historic policies that have shaped their housing and neighborhoods. Working with researchers, artists, and organizers, several cities have begun to engage with policymakers and the public about their planning histories through accessible data projects, visual storytelling, and high-profile public education efforts. For example, Louisville, Kentucky’s interactive exhibit, “Confronting Racism in City Planning and Zoning,” introduces viewers to the basics of residential zoning while illuminating the specific discriminatory land use practices that have shaped the city for generations. The project features archived reports, plans, maps, census tract demographics, and recent interviews with researchers investigating this history of segregation in Louisville. The story map also explores the city’s current plans to advance racial equity. Similar visual projects have been deployed in Seattle, Washington, Portland, Oregon, and one exhibit is touring nationally.
Educating policymakers and the public
In order to build greater awareness of the historic roots of current housing disparities, some city leaders have developed major public forums for policymakers and the public. For example, in November 2021, city leaders in Boulder, Colorado, hosted a Housing Equity Symposium to increase local knowledge about Boulder’s past discriminatory planning practices. The hybrid event featured presentations from local experts on topics from Boulder’s founding on indigenous land to the exclusionary effects of more recent efforts to limit residential growth. At the symposium, Boulder residents also shared their experiences with housing discrimination, while academics and politicans participated in a panel discussion around affordable housing. Public officials and non-profit organizations have hosted similar forums in other cities. For example, the Connecticut-based Open Communities Alliance (OCA) hosted a virtual teach-in for realtors to better understand the role of the real estate industry in perpetuating both historical and ongoing housing discrimination.
Racial equity task forces
Another strategy cities have employed to understand their histories of discrimination is the creation of racial equity task forces or teams charged with understanding and responding to racial disparities. One such task force is the resident-led Arlington, Texas, Unity Council. The mission of the broader Unity Council is to monitor the implementation of their racial equity report, improve existing or add additional recommendations, and provide yearly updates to the City’s Chief Equity Officer and the City Council on five key issues, including housing. In February 2021, the Unity Council proposed its first racial equity plan to the Arlington City Council. Similar racial equity task forces exist in Asheville, North Carolina; King County, Washington; and St. Paul, Minnesota.
Developing policy responses
Many cities have designed policy responses based on their research and reflection efforts. The following case studies highlight three illustrative policy responses: zoning reforms, fair housing ordinances, and direct financial assistance to residents harmed by discrimination. These initiatives often involve partnerships with local universities, nonprofit organizations, or consultants.
Some cities have identified zoning reform as a key tool for dismantling long standing patterns of segregation and inequality. Louisville’s Land Development Code (LDC) reform provides a window into the process of deciding where to target reform. A 2019 report by the city’s real estate and community development arm and a Housing Needs Assessment helped make land use a priority of its comprehensive plan. The city then hired a consultant that specializes in creating strategic housing solutions to review their LDC and determine what sections may restrict inclusive developments. In August 2020, the Council and Mayor of Louisville adopted a resolution for the Planning Commission to modernize the LDC for more equitable and inclusive development.
Louisville’s initiative also reveals how public engagement can lead to concrete and time-bound zoning reform. With support from the Urban Institute, the Louisville Planning and Design Services hosted three listening sessions in October 2020, followed by four workshops in December to inform community members and solicit feedback. This feedback was incorporated into a list of recommendations, broken down by scope and time-frame, the first phase of which have now been adopted.
Fair housing ordinances
Other cities have enacted reforms to address factors beyond zoning that perpetuate segregation, from income and wealth gaps to racial disparities in the criminal justice system. In 2017, the City of Seattle enacted a Fair Chance Housing ordinance to address discrimination against renters with criminal records. The ordinance prohibits landlords from denying applicants based on criminal history as well as discrimination in advertising. A six-month buffer period between the enactment and effective date of the ordinance was used to provide training workshops and technical assistance for rental housing providers and tenants.
Similar fair access to renting ordinances and corresponding landlord-tenant trainings exist in Portland, Oregon.
An alternative approach to historic harms of urban planning is to provide financial assistance to affected residents. In 2021, Evanston, a small city outside of Chicago, Illinois, received significant public attention for its Reparations Program, a multi-pronged approach to advancing racial equity. A Restorative Housing Program provides eligible residents up to $25,000 towards a down payment, closing costs, repairs, improvements, penalties, and other expenses, funded by a new tax on cannabis retailers. The program seeks to provide compensation to Black Evanston residents who were directly impacted by Evanston’s discriminatory policies between 1919 and 1969 and their descendants.
Evanston’s reparations program built on substantial research and reckoning with the city’s history of discrimination. In November 2019, the Evanston City Council adopted a resolution establishing the City’s Reparations Subcommittee and Reparations Fund. The Shorefront Legacy Center and Evanston History Center published a report documenting discrimination against Black Evanston residents by the city government and other public and private actors from the early 1900s through the late 1960s (when housing discrimination was formally outlawed). The report highlights a 1921 zoning ordinance that zoned the city’s majority-Black neighborhood for commercial use, segregating Black Evanston residents into one redlined neighborhood. The program has also relied on public engagement; since January 2020, the Reparations Subcommittee has held fifteen public meetings to solicit public feedback on the Restorative Housing Program. Other cities, including Asheville, North Carolina and St. Paul, Minnesota, have begun to explore reparations models based on direct financial assistance as well.
There are many strategies that cities of all sizes can take to reckon with segregation, redress past harms, and advance more equitable planning efforts.
- Examining local data, historic and current, and making it accessible to the public and policymakers helps build awareness and momentum.
- Establishing a racial equity task force can be a starting point to investigate the most pressing issues and brainstorm ideal solutions given the local context.
- Zoning reforms can directly confront exclusionary zoning patterns, increase housing justice, and act as the foundation for larger coordinated strategies. They also incorporate multiple city agencies, a diverse range of funding sources, and require an extensive community engagement process to strengthen and narrow reform.
- Fair housing ordinances can help address other factors such as income, wealth, and criminal history, which extend beyond zoning patterns to limit neighborhood access.
- Direct financial assistance can also provide an immediate and direct benefit. However, these systemic issues are deep-rooted and difficult to address with a one time cash transfer. Loosening take-up requirements may also encourage potential beneficiaries.
Monitoring and evaluations
Regardless of the chosen strategy, it is vital to monitor the policy initiative’s progress. Monitoring and evaluation can help showcase progress, reassess and pivot strategies, and provide an example for other jurisdictions. For example, the Minneapolis Fed, in partnership with the City, developed a dashboard of indicators to measure the housing impacts of the Minneapolis 2040 plan. These indicators will be updated through 2030 and will evaluate the long-term effectiveness of the comprehensive plan, including the elimination of single-family zoning. These indicators include, but are not limited to, counts of new units in multifamily structures, housing cost burden, and indices of income segregation and racial isolation.
If your jurisdiction is interested in thinking through local policy approaches to address housing disparities, the Housing Solutions Lab is available to provide assistance. Please reach out to us for support with planning or to pursue an evaluation of local policy efforts.
Public resources for cities
The following is a list of public resources available to help your city shift towards a racial equity planning framework and monitor the disparate historical impacts of racialized planning policies on your community. Simultaneously, we emphasize the importance of tapping into local resources such as your archival centers, research institutions, universities, as well as local stakeholders, and using local data.
Racial Equity Framework
- The Government Alliance on Race and Equity (GARE) has Racial Equity Task Force Tools and Resources available to help these teams build momentum in their municipality. They also host training cohorts if there is capacity and interest.
- There are also other cities sharing resources and guidance based on their own experiences. For example, the City of Long Beach has a Racial Equity Toolkit.
- Read an example ordinance for local tenant protections.
There are also data resources to better understand the racial disparities fueled by a series of unfair housing policies.
- The Roots of Structural Racism Project by the Othering and Belonging Institute includes an interactive map of residential segregation indicators, nine city case profiles, and a literature review.
- The Mapping Inequality by the University of Richmond Digital Scholarship Lab features an interactive map of previous redlining maps laid onto the current geography of cities.
- The Housing Needs Assessment Tool, a tool from the Local Housing Solutions and PolicyMap, aggregates Census data to better understand and document community housing needs. Users can create detailed reports for every city, county, and metropolitan area in the country. The reports identify and explain key data points; present interactive visualizations; and provide the information needed to interpret and integrate data into a comprehensive housing strategy.
- PolicyMap also hosts an interactive mapping tool to see your intended geography, your city, county, census tract, and browse through a wide range of indicators from housing to health to education.