Study: Development Regulations Linked to Segregation

Andrew Keatts | @andy_keatts | February 2, 2016

Image via flickr/Dan Reed

Image via flickr/Dan Reed

Debates about housing affordability and income inequality are dominating policy discussion in cities across the country. A newly published study may give extra fire to that conversation.

In their new study in the Journal of the American Planning Association, UCLA researchers Michael C. Lens and Paavo Monkkonen deliver a series of stark findings on the effects of development regulations on economic segregation.

Strict housing regulation – including limits on housing density, or requiring numerous regulatory approvals for new housing – are related to economic segregation, they found.
Putting development decisions in the hands of local governments, instead of state or regional ones, is related to economic segregation, too.

And the best way to combat economic segregation, they argue, is by forcing affluent neighborhoods to build more low-income housing, rather than doing things like easing density restrictions in lower-income areas that might pave the way for the types of townhouses associated with gentrification.

Taken together, the paper suggests a rather simple list of policy priorities for those who wish to combat economic segregation: remove density restrictions in established, upper-income communities; streamline the approval process for new housing citywide; and take the power to make those decisions out of city hall and into the state house.

But before arriving at these conclusions, Lens and Monkkonen wrestled with incomplete data in cities across the country that complicated their research. That, too, led to a recommendation.

“Planners should advocate for a national database on local regulations (so) we can identify problems and solutions in this area,” the researchers write.

Nonetheless, they managed to compare a number of different ways local governments regulate new development to the levels of economic segregation across the 95 largest metropolitan areas in the country.

Ultimately, they find that density restrictions lead to economic segregation—specifically, it leads to middle and upper-income residents self-segregating into affluent enclaves, where more dense (and ostensibly, less expensive) housing can’t be built.

But other land-use policies are also distinctly related to concentrated poverty, rather than concentrated affluence. Local political pressure, local zoning approval, and local project approval – different regulatory sub-categories Lens and Monkkonen included in their analysis – were each related to segregated outcomes.

That is, places where local authorities had more control over development restrictions and project-specific decisions also had more segregation.

“Places where cities have more separate oversight mechanisms are more segregated,” they write.
And the opposite is true too: places with more state political involvement have less segregation.

“This is an important finding, as it suggests that where regulatory power is more concentrated in the hands of local decision makers, segregation is higher, but where higher levels of government gave greater influence it is lower.”

The researchers don’t mince words. Their findings, they say, indicate that across the country’s 95 largest metro areas, development restrictions on housing density, or the number of approvals needed to build new housing, are significantly associated with segregation.

They dispense three main takeaways for planners and elected leaders.

“First and foremost, density restrictions are again found to be a major culprit in the fragmentation of cities,” they write.

Secondly, they say, these problems are exacerbated when local governments make development decisions. One way to address the issue is to instead put those decisions into the hands of state or regional authorities.

But there’s a harsh, unequivocal truth, the authors say, for the incumbent homeowners who seek to restrict new housing development in their neighborhoods for fear that it’ll damage their quality of life.

“Finally, the disaggregated findings imply that efforts to force wealthier parts of a city to build housing for low-income households, i.e. inclusionary housing, have a greater potential to reduce segregation than bringing higher-income households into lower-income parts of the city.”

For those homeowners who don’t particularly care whether their city is economically segregated, this policy prescription is perhaps not so meaningful.

But it forces those who profess to care about combating isolated poverty to confront whether it is as much of a priority as maintaining their neighborhood’s character as it exists today.

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