How zoning can promote unfair housing practices and what to do about it

Fair housing advocates have fought for the right for people to live in integrated neighborhoods since the Reconstruction era following the Civil War, when attempts were made to remedy the inequities of slavery. The battle for an equitable society continues to this day.

That makes the 15th Annual Lakeshore Fair Housing conference on Nov. 18 from 8:30-10 a.m. all the more significant. Hosted by The Fair Housing Center of West Michigan and Lakeshore Advisory Board, the discussion will feature a panel of experts discussing how fair housing interacts with planning, zoning, and land use, as well as successful efforts to increase housing options. The event is free and can be viewed online via Zoom. Advance registration is required by going here.

Panelists include Ryan Kilpatrick, executive director of Holland-based Housing Next; Rebekah Kik, director of Community Planning and Economic Development for the city of Kalamazoo; and Amy Nelson, executive director for the Fair Housing Center of Central Indiana.

Housing discrimination has a long history, Nelson says. Housing inequity was codified in 1933 when the Home Owners’ Loan Corp. (HOLC) was established under President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Its purpose was to refinance home mortgages that were in default to prevent foreclosure, as well as to expand home buying opportunities.

But there’s an underbelly to the HOLC, which used appraisal maps to “red-line” large swatches of the nation’s neighborhoods, blocking home loans to people of color, adds Nelson.

Fair Housing Act

“Lenders couldn’t make loans in those neighborhoods, and if they did, the government wouldn’t back the mortgage,” says Nelson. “There were so many civil rights abuses at that point, and housing was certainly one of those areas where it was separate but not equal.”
Amy Nelson
Fair housing took a big step forward when The Civil Rights Act of 1968, more commonly known as the Fair Housing Act, was signed into law.

This was one of the last major pieces of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society legislation. It prohibited discrimination in the sale, rental, and financing of housing based on race, color, national origin, religion, sex, familial status, and disability.

“The housing laws basically have two main goals: to try to address segregation to promote integration, and to stop discriminatory housing practices,” says Nelson.

While no one is knowingly red-lining maps today, housing discrimination is taking on a different hue that results in economic discrimination and exclusionary practices.

Fair housing, education and advocacy are the most effective tools to protect people from discrimination, Kilpatrick says.

“So when we decide as a community (that) we’re only going to allow houses of a certain type on lots of a certain size, that tends to weed out a fair amount of folks who live and work in the community,” Kilpatrick says. “So by doing that, we’re having an exclusionary effect, and that can sometimes run afoul of the intent of fair housing laws.”

Zoning ordinances

Kalamazoo is actively promoting fair housing initiatives, says Kik.
Rebekah Kik
“In Kalamazoo, fair housing also means that we have additional protected classes in our Chapter 18 Ordinance that cover more specific populations – educational status, victims of domestic violence, source of income, and LGBTQAI+ individuals,” Kik says.

Kalamazoo is working to become an example of how to plan for additional fair housing opportunities, Kik says, including changes she says the community has been asking for nearly seven years.

Such changes include changing rules on the size of parcels so new houses can be constructed on vacant lots interspersed among older properties in established neighborhoods; partnering with nonprofit housing builder Home Builders Association and Open Doors to build lease-to-own homes for formerly homeless individuals; creating a fund from the Foundation for Excellence to assist small developers to do projects with four or more units, including coaching, technical assistance, and construction funding; and working with developers who apply for tax credits for low-income housing.

Zoning ordinances still support unfair housing practices, says Nelson. Such restrictions include ensuring affordable housing in predominantly white neighborhoods, allowing affordable housing only for seniors, or restricting the sizes of multi-family units.

NIMBY attitudes

“We had an ordinance here that we worked against that restricted developments to one or two bedrooms because they wanted to keep the apartment kids out of the schools,” Nelson says. “We can see zoning (challenges) happening when it comes to group homes for people with
disabilities, where there’s a not-in-my-back-yard type of attitude.”

Land-use decision makers sometimes say “no” to housing opportunities without needing to verbalize it, adds Kik.

“Mortgage brokers and lenders will not finance housing unless the zoning is ‘right’,” she says. “Insurance can also be difficult to obtain, thus creating a situation where the housing is ‘not allowed’ or can fall into disrepair because loans can no longer be obtained.”

Most housing options are covered by fair housing laws, including apartments, single-family homes, condominiums, manufactured homes, and others. In some circumstances, laws exempt owner-occupied buildings with no more than two to four units, single-family housing sold or rented without the use of a broker, and housing operated by organizations and private clubs that limit occupancy to members.

Federal, state and local fair housing laws cover much of the housing industry,  including real estate operators, multiple listing services, builders, contractors, developers, owners of building lots, condominium associations, homeowners advertising and selling their homes, financial institutions, appraisers, owners of investment properties, rental managers and agents, advertising agencies, and insurance companies.

Housing instability

Housing instability affects all kinds of other systems in communities, according to Kilpatrick.

“So whether it’s the availability of talent who are capable and able to show up on time for work everyday or leading indicators of health, both of those factors play a big role in the sustainability of our community in the long term and understanding how housing is impacting healthy communities and vibrant and economically diverse communities,” he says.

Not all unfair housing is intentional, according to Kilpatrick. Rather, he says, much of it stems from not understanding the impact of municipal planners’ decisions. 

“I don’t think we have an abundance of planning commissions or city and township planners out there who are intentionally trying to exclude people from living in the community,” he says.
“More often than not, they’re thinking about economics, they’re thinking about traditional patterns of neighborhood development and what has existed in the past. 

“But given the high cost of the housing market today, what we tend to forget is that those policy decisions have a direct impact on people’s pocketbooks. And so part of this is really about making sure decision makers have a really clear sense of what the impact of their decisions will be on families who will be able to, or not able to, live in our communities.”


Read more articles by Paul R. Kopenkoskey.