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Residential Segregation

by Tom Angotti, May 19, 2004
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Thanks to the fiftieth anniversary of the Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, talk this month is about segregation in the schools.

Our education administrators could easily brush off the fact that city schools remain separate and unequal by blaming residential segregation - and with some justification. After all, most students go to their neighborhood schools, particularly students whose parents have limited resources and can't afford long school commutes. Still, our educators should acknowledge that educational apartheid is both a product of residential apartheid and a stimulus for it. Whites protect their exclusive residential enclaves to protect their privileged schools.

In "Separate and Unequal: Racial and Ethnic Neighborhoods in the Twenty first Century," the Lewis Mumford Center found that the income disparity between black and white neighborhoods is gaping - black incomes are 55 percent of white incomes. The disparity between Hispanics and whites is even greater.

Today the ethnic division of the city is complex. Over one third of the city's population is foreign born. The city's newest immigrant groups are much more diverse than in the past. They come from many more countries and their incomes vary more widely. They don't easily fit into the historic black/white racial categories that have dominated the U.S. since the early days of slavery. Yet they are segregated.

There are of course many reasons for residential segregation, there is no agreed upon strategy for eliminating it, and it's not obvious what integration really means. But it is incredible that in this city where those formerly dubbed "minorities" are now the majority there is no public discussion about how the city's policies may be responsible for segregation and the inequalities that go along with it. The political establishment seems to think everyone is color blind.

One set of city policies that appears to be immune from scrutiny relates to land use and zoning.

Zoning and the City of Enclaves

The main government mechanism for exercising land use policy is zoning. In principle, zoning separates industrial, commercial and residential functions, and controls the form and density of new development. In practice, zoning has been used to separate people by income and race. Zoning by itself isn't the cause of segregation, but it codifies and reinforces segregation patterns created by discrimination in real estate, and makes it difficult to change them.

There are at least two main ways that zoning codifies segregation and inequality: by encouraging gentrification and by maintaining environmental racism.

When the city's planners propose zoning changes in diverse neighborhoods that would spur massive new housing development, as they have done in Greenpoint and Williamsburg (Brooklyn), for example, they encourage the displacement of low-income working people and people of color, stimulating the conversion of the neighborhood to an all-white upscale enclave. As neighborhoods improve and property values go up, property owners put pressures on the city to change zoning rules and allow for new development. The city's planners normally applaud such trends as evidence of healthy development, and they then bestow on property owners windfall gains by "upzoning" sections of the neighborhood. But this kind of zoning change has a ripple effect, jacks up property values in the surrounding areas, and makes the neighborhood unaffordable to the people who now live there. The end result is income segregation, and since blacks and Latinos disproportionately fall on the lower end of the income scale, the outcome is also racial segregation. Ironically, many of the working class tenants of European descent now living in Greenpoint will be forced to move from a relatively integrated neighborhood to a lily-white suburb.

There are tried and true zoning techniques that aim to prevent this gentrification from further segregating neighborhoods. One of these, inclusionary zoning, mandates that a portion of all new residential development be affordable to people with low incomes. Alas, the City Planning Department recently opposed a proposal for inclusionary zoning in Park Slope, Brooklyn and is resisting demands for inclusionary zoning in other parts of the city.

At the same time that relatively diverse central neighborhoods are turning into yuppie enclaves, the city's planners gleefully provide zoning protections for the less diverse lower density neighborhoods in the outer boroughs. Recently recommended zoning changes in Staten Island, for example, will provide further protections to white homeowner enclaves.

Environmental Racism

Another way that zoning reinforces segregation is by allowing most of the noxious, polluting infrastructure to be located only in the city's shrinking number of manufacturing districts. The people who live and work in and near these districts are disproportionately people with modest incomes and people of color. A fascinating but little-known study by Lehman College professor Juliana Maantay (Solid Waste and the Bronx: Who Pays the Price) showed how white neighborhoods have managed to get their industrial districts rezoned for new residential development much faster than low-income communities of color. Since 1961 the city's wealthiest borough, Manhattan, converted industrial zones to residential and commercial zones the fastest, while in the Bronx, the city's poorest borough, there have been the least conversions. Prof. Maantay looked more closely at waste-related facilities in the Bronx and found that 87% of people living within one-half mile of these noxious uses are people of color. These are neighborhoods with high rates of asthma and other diseases related to noxious uses.

Since the city has no long-range plan for retaining industry, it does very little to help clean up existing facilities so they will be compatible with residential neighborhoods and continue to provide industrial jobs in those areas. Instead, the city is basically telling neighborhoods the only way they can get rid of bad industrial neighbors is to become upscale, lily-white bedroom enclaves,

What About the Suburbs?

To be fair, New York City must share the responsibility for discriminatory zoning with the suburbs. Many towns in upstate New York, Long Island, New Jersey and Connecticut require minimum lot sizes for homes of half-acre, one acre, and in some cases up to 20 acres. As a result, only the most expensive homes can be built. Since whites are disproportionately among the wealthiest homeowners, this effectively excludes blacks and other people of color. It's also no coincidence that NYC has the majority of the region's low-income public housing units.

While whites find opportunities for affordable housing in the suburbs, middle class blacks usually have a much harder time finding any housing. As reported in the Mumford Center's Separate and Unequal study: "Findings indicate that even minorities who have achieved higher incomes and moved to the suburbs live in more disadvantaged conditions than their white peers."

Tom Angotti is Professor of Urban Affairs and Planning at Hunter College, City University of NY, editor of Progressive Planning Magazine, and a member of the Task Force on Community-based Planning.

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