Photo by Mika Baumeister on Unsplash

This article is the fourth in our series—Community Development: National Leaders’ Visions—that NPQ, in partnership with the CEO Circle, an informal network of BIPOC community economic development leaders, is publishing in the coming weeks. The series focuses on identifying what is required to address key transformational challenges and to help the field of community economic development better accomplish its twin missions of racial and economic justice.

Access to safe and affordable housing is a key pillar in reducing intergenerational poverty and homelessness, and it’s undeniable that having an affordable place to live can improve families’ quality of life. But producing more housing is not enough.

More housing alone often fails to advance economic justice and mobility for Black and Brown families. This is true because where we build (our land use policies and the location efficiency of what we build) is just as important as what we build. New or rehabilitated housing built in the wrong places can sometimes reduce economic mobility and impede economic justice in Black and Brown communities. We have huge obstacles that stop us from building where we should build. Clearly, not everyone has the chance to live in the places where we’re building the right things.

As Smart Growth America—the group I lead—documented in a recent joint report with Brookings titled The Great Real Estate Reset, the US has become increasingly segregated by race and income, both in urban and suburban environments. Today, roughly 80 percent of low-income Black Americans and 75 percent of low-income Latinxs live in “low income” communities. By contrast, less than half of low-income white people live in a low-income community. It is well documented that there is social and economic value to living in mixed-income neighborhoods, and that truly mixed-income neighborhoods are rare. What the data show is that few low-income people of color get to live in the limited number of mixed-income neighborhoods that do exist.


How Geographic Segregation Fuels Economic Injustice

This persistence of geographic segregation by race and class is not just a social problem but an economic justice problem. According to a report from the Urban Institute and Chicago’s Metropolitan Planning Council, Black people in racially segregated areas have lower incomes, and Black and white people in segregated areas both have lower educational attainment and lower levels of safety.

Racial segregation also creates the conditions that can lead to wealth extraction from Black communities—Dr. Andre Perry and his colleagues at Brookings found in a groundbreaking analysis that homes in predominately Black neighborhoods were consistently devalued, and estimated that the aggregate cumulative financial loss to Black homeowners to total $156 billion. Our land use policies must be re-directed to reduce segregation, or we may not see the wealth building and economic mobility effects we seek.

Racial segregation also exacerbates and calcifies the effects of racist land use policies and funding throughout our history—those racist land use policies are well-documented in the Color of Law, the Color of Money, and other books. This past has routinely led to racially segregated suburbs, and today’s suburbs are now experiencing both increasing rates of poverty and continued segregation.

This has led people of color in suburban areas to suffer from a double whammy of reduced opportunities due to segregation and bad land use policies. For example, suburban housing that is affordable to people with lower incomes tends to be very far from jobs. One study found that residents in low-income suburban neighborhoods with access to transit can only reach about four percent of metro area jobs with a 45-minute commute. People of color disproportionately use transit, and another study found that fewer than 10 percent of Americans currently live within walking distance of frequent transit.


Land Use’s Impact on the Climate Crisis

Housing built in dumb places—smart growthers, see what I did there?—can also exacerbate climate change and reduce climate resilience in Black and Brown communities. We all know that the more miles we drive in gas-powered cars, the more greenhouse gases we emit into the atmosphere, and the more we power climate change. We can mitigate some climate change by driving electric vehicles (“EVs”) instead of internal combustion engine automobiles. But the automobile’s connection to climate resilience rather than mitigation is more a function of whether folks are driving than a function of what they’re driving.

Land use decisions that promote sprawling, car-oriented communities are the biggest reason residents are obligated to drive. Our land use and zoning history has relegated many Black and Brown residents to communities where accelerating climate change disproportionately causes more intense storms that happen more frequently, more extreme flooding, and more extreme heat, and Black and Brown residents end up fleeing their communities during these events. In these same communities, driving is the only option to get to safety, to get to shelter, or to get necessary supplies before, during, and after an extreme weather event.

You’ve seen the pictures of Black and Brown communities ravaged by the latest 100-year storm spurred by climate change. They end up funneled into choked and impassable highways. This is an example where electrification of vehicles may help decelerate climate change but will not necessarily improve climate resilience. If you are stuck in a traffic jam in your electric car during a flood or extreme weather event and can’t get to shelter or essential services, you’re still stuck in a traffic jam. Your vehicle didn’t protect you from the land use decisions that caused you to be in the traffic jam in the first place. EVs won’t help the thousands of Black and Brown community members who really need better mass transit, pedestrian, and other options to be more climate resilient and have alternative forms of mobility during climate events.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that many environmental justice and climate resilience challenges for Black and Brown communities are often the direct result of interstate highways being disproportionately run directly through them during the build-out of our nation’s Interstate Highway System. The racist placement of many of those highways weren’t just transportation decisions. They were land use decisions!

Where highways were placed quite obviously affected what land uses could remain, what land uses could remain viable, and what value would be attributed to the land.  This is also true in reverse—if a community tears down a highway, that is also a land use, not just a transportation, decision. The tear-down creates new possible land uses, changes what land uses are viable, and changes the value attributable to the land. The tear-down becomes a wealth building and economic development opportunity for the adjacent community because of the effects on the use of land going forward. When we in the community development field are exploring revamping land use policy, we need to keep an eye on transportation policies and practice too—those decisions are often de facto community land use decisions that community residents need to control and oversee.


Why Community Development Must Address More than Housing

So, what can we do? For decades, community development as a field has tended to focus on housing units built, not land use policies. This focus has often been for good reason, since there’s no single, overarching federal land use policy that governs how much housing gets built and where. It’s time to expand and revamp our approach.

We need a national campaign that builds out a 50-state strategy focusing on fundamentally and consistently revamping land use policy across the country with the priority goal of improving the health, wealth, and opportunities of Black and Brown communities. We need a campaign where national and local/regional organizations collaborate with—and help build power and capacity in—local frontline groups. The campaign will be backed by data, research, communications, and organizing strategy that mounts a movement to change local land use policy, planning, and practice on a consistent basis throughout the country.

It must be 50-state campaign because we cannot rely on the federal government alone to save us. As an example, even when the White House and legislators include in the proposed infrastructure bill a great concept like reconnecting communities torn apart by highways, they give the idea relatively small dollars with the left hand but then hand out much larger funds with the right hand that can be used to make the same mistakes again. True racial and economic equality through better land use must be operationalized at the state and local level—and it must focus or revamping land use policy, planning, and practice.

Policy. The campaign will mount a ground game that helps to eradicate local zoning laws that were passed with historic racist intent. These include mandatory single-family zoning, minimum lot sizes, regulations antagonistic to mixing uses, and other racially inequitable zoning laws. Those policies would be replaced with more use-flexible, context-sensitive but not context-beholden zoning rules that have racial equity and wealth building in Black and Brown communities as their intent. (Need I remind anyone that land use policy has been routinely used to create inequity and to build wealth in white communities throughout US history?)

Planning. The campaign will create a minimum platform and set of principles for effective, consistent, and upfront resident input and power in community planning.  This will require reframing the goal of a lot of planning and planning processes from increasing who is at the table. This approach will focus not just on who’s at the table, but who owns the table—and put more power to make decisions in the hands of the people.

Practice. The campaign will also seek to mandate more racial equity-focused practice in the implementation of land use decisions, including transportation and infrastructure decisions that often exacerbate existing racial and income-based disparities in communities. One goal will be to have every land use policy, investment, or decision be analyzed to see whether it will create more racially equitable outcomes, and whether it will decrease racial disparities in wealth, health, and opportunity. Ultimately, there is no middle ground and no neutral policies, decisions, or investments—either the policy will catalyze a racially equitable outcome, or it will exacerbate an existing racial disparity. If the effect of the investment isn’t wealth building, it’s wealth extraction. And yes, policymaker, you did know what was going to happen. There are no unintended consequences, just unexplored ones.

The feds are not the cavalry. More housing is necessary but not sufficient. Electric vehicles alone will not be enough. We must take a more strategic and coordinated approach that creates state-to-state, city-to-city, and door-to-door activists who are fighting for the same changes to land use policy, planning, and practice. We need a movement led by catalysts for change that have federal air support and a local ground game. The land use policy, planning, and practice changes that they collectively seek must center racial equity and economic justice as their key goals. Only such a 50-state, movement-based approach will ensure that land use decisions promote racial equity, improve climate resilience, and support economic betterment in Black and Brown communities—and ultimately all communities—nationwide.