A Tale of Two Towns: How Exclusionary Zoning Promotes Segregation

August 10, 2023

In another example of how zoning and housing might explain everything, exclusionary zoning policies can be linked to disparities in educational outcomes. A new report from the Century Foundation compares two towns in Westchester County, New York to examine how exclusionary zoning creates segregated communities that limit the educational opportunities available to low-income children.

Richard D. Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation and author of the new book Excluded: How Snob Zoning, NIMBYism and Class Bias Build the Walls We Don’t See, analyzes the villages of Scarsdale and Port Chester – two suburban communities that are only eight miles apart, but have very different demographics, levels of educational attainment, and zoning regimes.

Key takeaways:

  1. Public school students in Scarsdale, a wealthy suburb with highly restrictive zoning, have access to higher quality public schools and achieve greater educational outcomes than students in nearby Port Chester.
  2. In both math and English, there is a 55 percentage-point gap between the two villages in the share of students performing at or above grade level.
  3. Scarsdale creates economic exclusion by allowing only detached, single-family homes on large lots, while Port Chester allows multifamily housing on half of its land.

With a median household income above $250,000, the majority-white Scarsdale has been described as the “richest town on the East Coast.” Nearby Port Chester, a former manufacturing town, has an annual median income of $88,000 and is home to a predominantly Hispanic population. Astonishingly, zero percent of students in Scarsdale’s public schools are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, compared to three-quarters of students in Port Chester.

Previous research has shown that economic segregation has detrimental impacts on students’ educational achievement by concentrating student poverty. Compared to Port Chester, Scarsdale students benefit from greater per-pupil expenditures, smaller class sizes, and more experienced teachers. 

There is also a vast disparity in students’ performance on standardized tests between the two villages, and unsurprisingly, Scarsdale high schools have higher four-year graduation rates. Scarsdale high schools have even nixed Advanced Placement (AP) classes in favor of its custom “Advanced Topics” courses, with curricula developed by Ivy League professors.

These disparities did not result by chance. Kahlenberg argues that differences in the two communities’ zoning policies created and maintain the economic segregation. Scarsdale has a highly restrictive zoning regime: the majority of the village is zoned for single-family homes on very large lots (up to an acre in some places). Of 218 homes permitted in Scarsdale between 2014 and 2021, every single one was a single-family home. 

Just 0.2 percent of the lot area in Scarsdale is the site of duplexes and triplexes, as compared to 23.5 percent in Port Chester. In addition, Port Chester allows multifamily housing developments, ranging from three to fifteen stories, on about half of its land. Half of Port Chester residents rent their homes, while only ten percent of Scarsdale residents are renters. 

The example of these two villages lends credence to Douglas Massey and co-authors’ assertion that “density zoning is now the most important mechanism promoting class and racial segregation” in the US. Historically, many Scarsdale homes had racially restrictive covenants. Now, Scarsdale’s restrictive zoning may have the effect of maintaining racial exclusion by barring most low-income, and even middle-income, families from living in the village.

Westchester County has faced scrutiny for placing most of its subsidized affordable housing in majority-Black and Brown communities, such as Port Chester. Scarsdale did not add a single unit of affordable housing in two decades. 

Despite their ostensibly liberal political leanings (Joe Biden won 75 percent of the vote in the 2020 election), Scarsdale community members have resisted efforts to integrate, build affordable housing, or upzone. In 2023, Scarsdale and other affluent Westchester communities strongly opposed Governor Kathy Hochul’s proposed Housing Compact, which eventually failed. The reforms would have required Westchester communities to build three percent more housing over the next three years and would have required upzoning near transit stations.  

Kahlenberg writes that lower-income children are punished by exclusionary zoning when they must attend lower-performing schools with less resources. Moreover, exclusion harms all students by limiting diversity and exposure to peers with different life experiences in the classroom. 

Residents of affluent suburbs, like Scarsdale, may think their opposition to zoning changes or new housing is simply protecting the village’s “character.” But it can have major downstream effects on the education of local children.

Photo of an US suburb by White.Rainforest on Unsplash