By Roderick Hall
In many ways, white supremacy has been woven into the decisions that determine where and what type of housing is built in the U.S. Richard Rothstein in The Color of Law writes about policies like redlining and single-family-only zoning that isolated affluent white residents in affluent white communities. These rules helped determine who could live where, and even after the Fair Housing Act was passed and the courts ruled against many discriminatory policies, their impacts live on.
That's the case for single-family-only zoning. It's helped make homeownership largely unattainable in many areas — for Black folks, certainly, but people of all races, too. In Los Angeles County, housing is so scarce and unaffordable that the government must subsidize rental units for residents at 120 percent of the area median income, leading in part to a devastating surge of homelessness.
This is a crisis planners need to address. To truly plan for and achieve housing justice, we must ensure that housing and resources are distributed equitably across neighborhoods.
Take California. The state has the largest unhoused population in the country. According to the 2020 Greater Los Angeles Homeless Count, more than 66,000 people experience homelessness in LA County, nearly a 13 percent increase from last year. And digging into the demographics reveals a further disturbing trend: Black folks make up eight percent of the county, but a staggering 34 percent of its unhoused population.
In an effort to increase and diversify housing stock, the five-county area including LA County has committed to building 1.4 million new housing units over an eight-year period. The city of LA is charged with 456,000, which would increase local supply by about 30 percent.
"To truly plan for and achieve housing justice, we must ensure that housing and resources are distributed equitably across neighborhoods."
But now, the city must decide where those units will be built. Only a finite amount of LA's land is zoned residential, and much of that is single-family only. That leaves just 25 percent of all residential land for new multifamily developments, the New York Times reports. Overlayed with racial, income, and density data, that fraction is shown to already be densely developed and populated by majority low-income Black residents and other people of color. As land there becomes even more scarce, the need for more housing could further limit opportunities for vital green space.
Meanwhile, the other 75 percent of land zoned residential is comprised of lower-density neighborhoods populated by mostly higher-earning white folks. As planners, we often work with city managers and councils to center those voices; as Katherine Einstein says in her book Neighborhood Defenders, our land-use regulations are given power, in part, by those who use them to their advantage to share their views on housing and land use. But the resulting policies tend to maintain segregation, worsen climate change, and ignore our housing crisis.
As part of the Housing Element Task Force for LA's General Plan, community design and planning group Pacific Urbanism is looking to change that pattern. To help determine where new units will be built, the group is advocating for city council and planning staff to use objective criteria that will equitably distribute units across the city, allocate more units in wealthier, job- and transit-rich communities, and make homes affordable to those already living and working in each neighborhood.
This is the approach planners should take to achieve housing justice — and to plan a more diverse, just, and sustainable future. We must stop maintaining the status quo and its living legacy of white supremacy. We must rethink land use and zoning for climate and racial justice. And we must ensure that higher-income, whiter communities take an equitable share in the effort to end the housing crises.
Viewpoint is Planning's op-ed column. The views expressed here are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of the magazine or the American Planning Association. Please send column ideas to Lindsay R. Nieman, Planning's associate editor, at email@example.com.