The Washington Post has a really dumb article about race, class, and the suburbs. I mean it’s an important topic, but the writer discusses the topic like it is a brand new development and that it is unique to St. Louis. (How old is this writer? 12?) I don’t usually point to bad articles on this blog, but I’m grouchy this morning…
The article contrasts Ferguson, MO, a suburb with a majority of African-Americans, with other suburbs that have more whites and more wealth. The writer says that segregation is reinforced by housing prices and zoning laws in the wealthier, whiter suburbs.
St. Louis’s geographic divide stems from a legacy of segregation — legal and illegal — and more recent economic stratification that has had the effect of reinforcing racial separation. Even now, some tony suburbs maintain large-lot single-family zoning, essentially closing the door to lower-earners who might want to subdivide a property.
Middle class suburbs have zoning laws? No way! Get out of town! These zoning laws help maintain a certain image of a town, keep property values high, and maintain a homogeneous population? Really? This is groundbreaking stuff here.
In my old neighborhood, people parked their cars on front lawns and left the waste from their construction jobs in their backyard. Honestly, it drove me bananas. In our new, wealthier suburb, that just doesn’t happen. One neighbor backs his Mercedes into the driveway, because he wants the car to always point forward. In the old town, there were drive-through, fast food joints in the middle of town. Here, there’s a French bakery and a Kate Spade handbag store. In the old town, any business, no matter how ugly, could plop itself wherever it wanted (provided they paid off the right people), because of the need for tax ratables. Here, it took 30 years to get permission from the town to build another shopping center on the ramp to the major highway.
I can never subdivide my property and make it a two or three family home. Actually, you can’t do that in almost any suburb in this country. I also can’t change the footprint of my house much. I can’t turn my house into a five story, glass box. I can’t turn my house into a business. There are millions of things that I can’t do. I need approval from a zoning board. In my parents’ town, if you cut down a tree, then you have to plant five more.
Do all these rules make it impossible for lower income people to move to this town? Yes! There are some apartments near the center of town with lower-income people. Some of Jonah’s friends live there. But no new apartments have been constructed in this town since the 1960s. Any proposal by a developer to build multi-unit apartments is immediately squashed by community groups with Facebook pages.
Now, are suburban zoning laws a terrible thing? On the one hand, these zoning laws do result in economic segregation. On the other hand, suburban zoning laws are the result of local decisions, little democracies. People can create communities of their choice. If the people in Cape Cod want all their houses to be three colors, then good for them. The place looks wonderful and it brings in a lot of tourists, who love the Cape Cod esthetic. If the people in Town A want to make laws that say that everybody has to wear a hat on Thursday, then that’s fine, too.
Also, people set up these zoning laws, because the value of the house is largely determined by its location in a particular community. A house is a person’s biggest investment, their larger purchase, their retirement plan. If that retirement plan is compromised by the fact that a neighbor begins parking their car on the front lawn, then the person will get understandably pissed off. Hence, zoning laws.
I’m not sure how we can create more diverse suburbs, while maintaining the right of local people to self-determine the appearance of their community.