How Philly Politicians Are Unwittingly Adopting the Land Use Toolkit of Suburban Segregationists

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Jake Blumgart already blogged Nikole Hannah-Jones’ ProPublica piece on federal politicians’ failure to enforce the Fair Housing Act, and I have a new post up at Demos looking at the state and local policies that the FHA was supposed to combat.

I argue that the main channel segregation works through is local government land use policy:

But as time moved on, segregationists had to resort to less blatantly-unconstitutional zoning practices. No longer able to simply ban black folks from their neighborhoods, segregationists resorted to trying to price them out instead.

The new tools for making white neighborhoods more expensive included regulations like minimum lot size rules, maximum lot occupancy rules, building height limits, and mandatory minimum parking requirements.

It’s not that these regulations are exclusively about race. There are a range of wholesome, if mistaken, reasons why these kinds of policies are so popular with homeowners and municipal politicians.

But make no mistake — these are some of the most important channels that segregation works through, and what they have in common is that they’re designed to cap the supply of housing, and make neighborhoods more expensive.

The real problem isn’t that poor people can’t afford to live in the suburbs, but that central cities are now using the segregationist toolkit and making housing less affordable.

There’s been a lot of optimistic talk about a “back to the city” movement, where Millenials and empty nest Baby Boomers supposedly are rediscovering the appeal of city living. We’ve been seeing some of that in Philly and Pittsburgh the past 3 years. It’s a great trend that I hope to see continue, but already we are starting to see white and fast-whitening neighborhoods using the segregationist toolkit to create fake housing shortages of their own.

Perversely, the politicians pushing these anti-density land use changes often co-opt progressive rhetoric to argue for housing shortage-creating policies.

A recent example is this twisted logic from Philadelphia City Council President Darrell Clarke’s office defending a bill to increase parking requirements and the minimum apartment size:

Although O’Neill introduced the bill, representatives from his office said he did so on behalf of Council President Darrell Clarke, whose staff actually crafted the legislation. In an email, Clarke’s office defended the proposal. A spokeswoman for the councilmember said the bill in question was drafted in response to residents in neighborhoods like Fishtown, Fairmount and the Temple University area, who reportedly complained about hard-to-find parking and students taking parking spots.

Specifically cited was a 40-unit proposal by developers Harman Deutsch, which contained no on-site parking. The idea behind the bill was to prevent developers from pushing a “cost” — in this case the burden of parking — onto residents. The final version of the bill was supposed to be a compromise between resident and developer concerns.

This gets the “cost” argument exactly backwards. Minimum parking requirements are a tax on city residents who own a below-average number of cars, which subsidizes residents who own an above-average number of cars.

Without the parking requirements, curb parking gets tighter, prompting the neighbors who can most afford it to pay for monthly garage parking, and prompting some people to abstain from car ownership altogether.

With the parking requirements, the cost of parking gets bundled into the cost of housing, forcing people who do not drive to pay higher rent. It’s not “developers” pushing the cost of parking onto other residents, it’s the car owners! Likewise, it’s not developers who end up paying more with the parking minimums either, it’s the non-driving renters.

Raising the minimum apartment size also makes housing more expensive. You’re preventing people from making a trade-off between rent and apartment size. People might want to choose a smaller apartment and pay less rent, but Darrell Clarke’s bill takes away that choice and raises the minimum price of an apartment.

Both these land use changes are going to make housing more expensive and price out poorer residents, but both are being pushed under the guise of helping low-income people.

If city politicians are really concerned about gentrification and displacement of long-time residents, then it is absolutely critical that they do not apply the housing shortage policies of the suburbs to growing city neighborhoods.

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3 Responses to How Philly Politicians Are Unwittingly Adopting the Land Use Toolkit of Suburban Segregationists

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