If you venture to the south side of campus near Poe Field, you’ll likely see the construction of Princeton’s two newest residential colleges. Notably, if you approach the chain link fencing from the north, you’ll see a banner declaring that these new residential colleges are meant to “expand our enrollment and bring opportunities to more students.” As far as I can tell, few, if any seem to take issue with this notion.
Yet, if Princeton students adopted the attitudes of vocal homeowners in the country’s most advantaged communities, a parade of criticism would encircle these developments. There would be claims that additional enrollment will increase Princeton’s acceptance rate, thereby making the University less prestigious, or increase student to faculty ratios to the detriment of incumbent students, or even negatively alter the character of the university campus. Readers would likely find such arguments both misguided and elitist — and they would be right.
Nevertheless, these are the very same arguments that a typically unrepresentative group of homeowners use to delay or disrupt almost any kind of development, including desperately needed affordable housing. To achieve this, these actors rely on excessively complex and restrictive zoning laws and procedures — often referred to as exclusionary zoning. Regardless of their intentions, these actors help achieve ends similarly accomplished by a myriad of past, racially discriminatory policies, all with an ostensibly race-neutral cover.
Zoning laws — the earliest of which were explicitly racist in intent and implementation — generally assign certain uses to land, such as residential, commercial, industrial, and so on. Though they are seen as arcane and wonky by most, these laws have critical implications for urban inequality, as they ultimately determine who gets to live where.
Instead of specifying a certain area of a municipality for residential use, imagine restricting that area exclusively for detached single-family homes, which are more expensive and take up more land per unit than multi-family (apartment) housing. Most won’t need to imagine this: it’s by far the most common type of housing arrangement in the United States and widely mandated throughout the country.
Yet, beyond single-family zoning, municipalities can enact a host of land use restrictions, including minimum lot sizes, maximum building heights, minimum parking requirements, occupancy laws, excessive open space requirements, and explicit limits or moratoria on residential construction that all work to limit the supply and density of housing. The combination of these efforts inflates the size and cost of housing, reduces economic growth, worsens regional inequality, increases displacement pressures facing low and moderate-income households, and increases climate emissions by encouraging larger homes and more car-dependent communities. Worst of all, these policies help exclude low and moderate-income households, which, given how this country’s history of racial oppression has entangled race and class, disproportionately impacts communities of color.
As if the regulations themselves weren’t bad enough, their implementation can be even more inequitable. Developers must often traverse unnecessarily complicated and delayed processes — which typically include multiple reviews and public hearings — to get anything other than detached single-family homes built. Delays like these add costs to the development process. Public hearings often give the most resourced neighborhoods ample opportunity to voice intense opposition for reasons ranging from increasing demands on public services like education — sometimes referred to as fiscal zoning — to the often arbitrary concerns of neighborhood character and obstructed views.
These hurdles greatly disadvantage small-scale and nonprofit developers, who construct critically undersupplied moderate and low-income housing, because they often lack the kind of financing necessary to make it through a byzantine development process. Proponents of exclusionary zoning often deplore large-scale market-rate housing construction — research indicates that it too can help relieve housing cost pressures overall — yet they employ tactics that all but ensure that it is the only type of multi-family housing that gets built.
Homeowners, particularly in high opportunity, exclusive, even purportedly progressive areas, have strong incentives to uphold this status quo, largely because it jacks up property values by restricting the supply and type of housing. Yet, their role in the housing crisis goes largely unnoticed and unaddressed; these homeowners are more often seen by themselves and others as neighborhood stewards. They get away with this behavior because they dominate local politics and have expertise with extremely archaic zoning and land use policy. Indeed, in particularly insidious fashion, they often deflect development away from their neighborhoods towards those with less political capital to shape the process, which can then cause displacement and even more skepticism about development.
Despite the bipartisan entrenchment of exclusionary zoning, Democratic and Republican presidential administrations have previously criticized it. Recently, the Biden administration has taken the most explicit step yet to reign in the practice, offering incentive payments to localities that reform their zoning laws. But as experts have noted, these reforms likely won’t have much effect in wealthy areas, where exclusionary zoning is most rampant. There are plenty of good ideas for opening these places up and a few cities and states are beginning to act on them; what we lack — and what advocacy groups like Desegregate Connecticut and Neighbors for More Neighbors are starting to achieve — are strategies to build support for these policies.
To be clear, eliminating exclusionary zoning will not solve our nation’s housing crisis on its own. We still need far more public financing for housing assistance and construction, more efforts to protect renters and eliminate housing discrimination, and an equitable approach to revitalizing areas that have withstood decades of intentional divestment in ways that promote rather than displace the community. Yet, ditching exclusionary zoning should be an obvious part of the solution because of what it says about our values. Our communities can truly be inclusive and ensure opportunity for all people, particularly people of color who have borne the brunt of exclusionary zoning for far too long. Embracing this vision may even help us finally get serious about solving our most intractable political problems.
As I’ve mentioned in a previous piece, Princeton students represent the next generation of homeowners, one that has the opportunity to set a new tone of inclusion by building diverse communities and demanding reform to unjust zoning laws that enshrine housing unaffordability and segregation. Just as we recognize the opportunity that a Princeton education represents and call for that opportunity to be expanded, so too should we recognize the opportunity that living in a place like Princeton represents and do all that we can to expand it to as many as possible.
Matt Mleczko is a Population Studies and Social Policy doctoral student at the Office of Population Research and the School of Public and International Affairs and a graduate research assistant at The Eviction Lab from Kenosha, Wis. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.