“Local Control:” 5 Decades of Segregation

We know local land-use regulations can produce racial segregation as an outcome, but how strong is the effect? In a new paper, UC Merced scholar Jessica Trounstine finds empirical evidence that impact and intent are strongly linked when it comes to neighborhood exclusion.

Key takeaways:

  1. Areas that were majority-white in 1970 still have more stringent land-use regulations today.
  2. Strong local land-use controls maintained segregated patterns over the past five decades.
  3. Whiter neighborhoods in California tend to support more restrictive land-use regulations, even without explicit racist intent.

By now, we all know the common trope from the 2017 film Get Out of the bleeding-heart liberal who lives in an affluent, whites-only community but “would have voted for Obama a third time” if they could. Political scientist Jessica Trounstine has been investigating how exactly this works in our institutions. She identifies a major culprit in restrictive land-use regulations that prevent lower-cost homebuilding in high-opportunity neighborhoods.

Trounstine builds a compelling theory for why land use regulations are used as tools for social exclusion: She argues that “residents use local land use policy to minimize threats to achieving collective goals,” which she groups into (1) growing property values, (2) lowering local tax burdens, and (3) maximizing public services. In other words, land use regulations solve a collective action problem for individuals seeking to get the most bang for their buck when they invest in housing as an asset. 

No one wants to pay more than the next town over to repair their sidewalks, and no family wants their largest investment to make them less wealthy. Generously, Trounstine acknowledges that “we should expect all incumbent residents to be concerned about congestion [in public goods], but worries may be heightened in places with growing populations and limited land area.” So far, so good.

But what happens when racial segregation is itself viewed as a valuable public service? That’s where land-use regulation comes in to maintain racial homogeneity: By raising property values that homeowners fear would be driven down in a more racially diverse neighborhood. Using data from the US Census, Trounstine finds that “cities that were whiter than the metropolitan area in 1970 had significantly more restrictive land use regimes in 2006.” 

The data also correlated with homeownership and population growth. Municipalities in growing metro regions erected barriers to homebuilding to prevent an influx of people of color, a perceived detriment to majority-white property values. “When cities are greater than 15 percentage points whiter than the metro area,” Trounstine observes, “they are more likely to restrict land use than all other quintiles.”

Such cities remained whiter as of 2011, correlating strongly with land-use restrictions. More damningly, Trounstine finds that injunctions under the Fair Housing Act tended to reduce a city’s white population share, making them more diverse. “In 1970, the average city was about 94% white, whether it would later face a Fair Housing Act lawsuit or not,” she observes. “By 2011, cities without lawsuits were about 73% white on average, compared to 68% white in cities with lawsuits.” 

In short: Cities that did not face legal pressure to liberalize their land-use restrictions remained less racially diverse.

Trounstine’s evidence suggests white residents in white-majority areas generally like it that way. Using precinct-level election results in California jurisdictions with restrictive land-use regulations, Trounstine finds that voters in whiter neighborhoods tend to prefer stricter land-use controls. “In San Francisco,” she writes, “about 28% of voters supported restricting development in precincts that were comprised of 10% white residents, compared to 68% support in precincts that were 90% white.”

Hence the political battles over “local control.” If its true purpose is maintaining historic patterns of racial segregation, it’s not only unconstitutional — it’s un-American.