One thing we should be aware of in local politics is that national trends do not always apply to a particular locality, and that things that were true elsewhere are not necessarily true for a particular locality. We should also remember that things that happened 60 years earlier are not necessarily the same as things happening today. Even if the policy is the same, the motivation for that policy may be different.
This, of course, brings me to a guest column by former Bloomington City Council member Chris Sturbaum. I rarely agree with Sturbaum, but this was a very good column providing important historical context to the zoning laws we have today. With that said, three things can be true at once:
1. Sturbaum is correct that in this progressive community the accusation that “racism” was the reason for single-family zoning laws passed in the 1970’s and 1980’s is absurd and defamatory.
2. Single family zoning has often had the effect of keeping black people out of white neighborhoods, whether that was the intention or not. In other areas in decades past, keeping blacks out of middle-class white neighborhoods was the goal of single-family zoning. See this thread for more.
3. Zoning that restricts what can be built where does increase the price of housing, and that contributes to lower-income people being excessively burdened by housing costs. Every public policy has costs. Do the supposed benefits of single family zoning justify the costs?
So first, let’s address the fact that single-family zoning was designed to keep a certain undesirable element out of core neighborhoods: Indiana University students. Democrats have been very open about this for the entire 25 years I have been following local government back to when I was a student in the 1990’s.
Burt while zoning has been used to keep blacks out of certain areas throughout the country, I do not believe that liberal Democrats who designed the zoning ordinances in Bloomington in the 70’s and 80’s were motivated by racism. Keep in mind that this is a very liberal city and these ordinances were written ten and twenty years after the Civil Rights Act. Unless the critics of these laws can provide concrete evidence that racism was the goal, then we should have some charity on their racial views.
The stated idea for these codes was to make home ownership affordable and to carve out space in core neighborhoods for families rather than students – and suspicion of “developers” was part of that. The concern was that student rentals would dominate those neighborhoods. Having been both an undergraduate living in the dorms and a homeowner, I understand why “townies” do not want to live next door to students: Loud parties, littering, and homes not being kept up. I understand the concern for property values.
Do I agree with these policies? Not necessarily. Government planning intervention often goes too far and has in many cases priced people out of the housing market. I have been speaking against overly aggressive zoning and regulations on business for over twenty years, but I can understand the concerns and see the feelings as valid without agreeing with the policy solution.
I certainly agree that it is unfair to accuse liberal Democrats of the 1970’s and 1980’s in Bloomington, Indiana of being motivated by racism. Sure, racism motivated regulations in other cities and states decades before Bloomington’s liberal Democrats drew up the zoning codes. But it is unfair and inaccurate to claim that was the motivation here. We can and should address problems caused by land use regulations without smearing the character of people who genuinely wanted to make Bloomington a better place to live.