Zoning Laws and Social Injustice

Colin Fiske, Coalition for Responsible Transportation Priorities

Single Family Zoning

This is the third in a series of articles in the EcoNews about the history of how American communities were designed for cars. The first two articles described the origins of traffic laws and the criminalization of walking in the street. This month’s article describes the origin of zoning laws and how those laws have both perpetuated social injustice and helped create landscapes that favor personal automobiles over other modes of transportation.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, city governments in the US started creating systematic plans regulating what types of building and activities could take place in specific areas, a practice known technically as exclusionary zoning—but usually just called “zoning.” Previously, it would have been impossible to legislate the separation of areas where people lived from where they worked, shopped, or played, because people traveled mostly by foot and couldn’t cover long distances effectively on a daily basis. Ironically, the technological development which initially allowed exclusionary zoning to take hold was a form of public transportation—the streetcar.1 But soon the private automobile, and the extensive road network built to serve it, would allow city leaders to justify ever greater zoned separation of uses—and of people.

The story most commonly told about the rise of zoning is that it was needed to separate dangerous and polluting industries from homes—a Progressive Era response to poor living conditions in post-Industrial Revolution cities. But this is only partly true. Much of the pressure to implement zoning rules actually came from wealthy, white, property-owning residents who wanted to keep both undesirable structures and activities, as well as people of color and immigrants, away from their neighborhoods. Even in the very earliest days of zoning, this was often framed as a concern about property values2—a refrain still commonly heard in zoning hearings today. 

The spread of zoning codes coincided with the spread of the automobile, which allowed cities to put greater distances between people and uses they viewed as “incompatible.” Cars to get from distant homes and workplaces also served as markers of wealth and privilege, a role they continue to fill today. For example, concern about property values has for decades been a commonly raised objection not just to new housing but also to urban trails.3 The usual explanation offered for this concern is that the type of people who use trails, particularly at night, are untrustworthy or undesirable. In other words, homeowners think that people who walk or bike for transportation will lower their property values just by existing in the same neighborhood. Today, people raising these concerns do not typically mention race explicitly, but racial undertones are sometimes easy to detect.

White property owners at the turn of the twentieth century were not so shy about arguing that people of color living in their neighborhoods would be bad for property values. In fact, many of the earliest zoning codes were explicitly race-based, designating different residential areas for people of different races. Even after the Supreme Court outlawed this practice in 1917, cities figured out many ways to enforce de facto segregation through their zoning codes.4 

One of the most important zoning tools cities have used to enforce residential segregation is the designation of neighborhoods in which only single-family homes are allowed. The first exclusionary single-family zoning rules were implemented in 1916 at the behest of a powerful developer in Berkeley, CA to “protect” a wealthy white subdivision—and its home values—from a proposed Black-owned dance hall and Asian-owned laundries. These properties already had legal restrictions known as racial covenants on their titles which barred people of color from purchasing them. In the coming decades, discriminatory lending practices known today as “redlining” would be formalized by banks and the federal government, enforcing racial segregation by denying home loans to people of color. Through most of the twentieth century, single-family zoning worked in concert with racial covenants and redlining to create and perpetuate both residential segregation and an enormous generational wealth gap, both of which persist to the present day.5 And while racial covenants and redlining are both now illegal, single-family zoning still applies to the majority of the land in many American towns and cities, including our communities here on the North Coast.

The persistent racial wealth gap impacts not just homeownership but also mobility. The average cost of owning a new car now exceeds $10,000 a year,6 and people in car-dependent places like most of Humboldt County spend almost as much on transportation as they do on housing.7 This has become another ongoing barrier to neighborhood integration and diversity, as our zoning rules practically require car ownership, especially to live in single-family areas.

That’s because low-density development patterns which reach their zenith with single-family zoning mean, by definition, that people live farther away from each other. Densities are lowered even further by other ubiquitous features of these zoning codes, such as minimum lot sizes, height limits and requirements to “set back” buildings from the edges of the lot.

Exclusionary zoning also ensures that homes are not located next to the places people work and play. Even for people who live in denser multifamily housing, the distances to many destinations are increased by having to travel through low-density development to work, shop, visit doctors, and play. Because short distances are required for walkability and bikeability, and higher concentrations of people are required to support good public transit, exclusionary zoning breeds car dependency.

The right of cities to enforce not-explicitly-race-based exclusionary zoning laws was upheld by the Supreme Court in 1926 in a case known as Euclid v. Ambler. (As a result, exclusionary zoning is also called “Euclidean zoning.”) This provided firm legal footing for the rapid expansion of zoning laws, and local governments used this power primarily to create and maintain exclusively single-family, mostly white, upper-middle-class neighborhoods, which also were (and still are) car-dependent. While recent state laws in California have loosened restrictions somewhat, forcing cities to allow some additional housing units even in single-family districts, zoning laws are still a major barrier to creating equitable, less car-dependent communities.


1Erickson, Amanda. 2012. The Birth of Zoning Codes, a History. Bloomberg City Lab. https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2012-06-19/the-birth-of-zoning-codes-a-history.

2Erickson 2012.

3Webel, Suzanne. 2000. Trail Effects on Neighborhoods: Home Value, Safety, Quality of Life. American Trails. www.americantrails.org/resources/trail-effects-on-neighborhoods-home-value-safety-quality-of-life.

4Silver, Christopher. 1997. The Racial Origins of Zoning in American Cities. From: Manning Thomas, June and Marsha Ritzdorf, eds. Urban Planning and the African American Community: In the Shadows.

5Baldassari, Erin and Molly Solomon. 2020. The Racist History of Single-Family Zoning. KQED Radio. www.kqed.org/news/11840548/the-racist-history-of-single-family-home-zoning

6Moye, Brittany. 2022. Annual Cost of New Car Ownership Crosses $10K Mark. AAA. newsroom.aaa.com/2022/08/annual-cost-of-new-car-ownership-crosses-10k-mark.

7Center for Neighborhood Technology. H+T Index. htaindex.cnt.org/map.