Zoning and master plans adopted throughout Virginia in the 20th century promoted racial segregation in housing, and played a direct role in growing the wealth gap between Black and white residents, according to a new report.
Although explicitly racist zoning laws are now a relic, their effects linger, and present-day land use policies perpetuate segregation by race and income, according to the report put together by the McGuireWoods Zoning and Segregation Work Group and released earlier this month. The report, from one of Virginia's most influential law, government relations and consulting firms, is intended as a "call to action" to state and local leaders, its co-authors said.
“We feel there is an opportunity for Virginia to take some aggressive action to address that long history of inequity," said James W. Dyke Jr., a senior consultant with the firm and a former Virginia Secretary of Education under Gov. L. Douglas Wilder.
Dyke and Jonathan P. Rak, a real estate and land use attorney based in Northern Virginia, lead the work group. The pair began researching the origins of zoning and master planning in the state after nationwide protests against police brutality and systemic racism last year. Rak said he was surprised to learn the primary goal of the earliest zoning ordinances in the state.
“In Virginia in particular, but also in other states, zoning started as a specifically race segregation measure,” Rak said.
Richmond designated white and “colored” residential blocks in 1911. When the Virginia General Assembly endorsed the practice a year later, other jurisdictions followed suit, including Norfolk, Portsmouth, Roanoke and Ashland, according to the report.
The Supreme Court ruled racially segregated zoning unconstitutional a few years later, but cities and counties soon turned to other tools to achieve the same ends.
In Alexandria and elsewhere, local master plans labeled then-African-American neighborhoods as industrial land and white neighborhoods as residential. The residential label came with rules for minimum lot sizes and structure types – single family homes, as opposed to row houses or apartment buildings. The restrictions were another way of keeping Black residents out, as most simply couldn’t afford such properties.
Local zoning laws weren’t the only obstacle Black families faced in attaining safe housing, access to job opportunities or quality education in places of their choosing.
Federal redlining of neighborhoods limited African-Americans’ access to credit and, by extension, home ownership. Federally insured loans that funded the construction of major suburban communities after WW2 typically came with the explicit condition that African Americans could not buy into the developments. Racial covenants written into deeds forbid property owners from selling homes to non-white buyers.
Black buyers who were able to successfully navigate the maze of financial and land use restrictions were typically met with legal challenges from neighbors or home owners associations. Intimidation and violence from neighbors were common, too, according to The Color of Law by Richard Rothstein, a 2017 book detailing the government’s role in residential segregation.
Combined with other barriers, the housing policies ensured Black families would not be able to grow their wealth at the rate that white families could for decades.
“Underrepresented households initially precluded from living in single-family neighborhoods were deprived of opportunities to build generational wealth,” according to the McGuireWoods report. “The legacies of this deprivation of generational wealth continue to impair the ability of marginalized populations to pursue single-family housing as housing prices continue to rise.”
A wealth gap between Black and white households exists to this day, and home ownership remains the primary driver of it. In Richmond, 26 homes were bought by white households per day on average in 2017. That same year, an average of six homes per day were purchased by Black buyers, according to the Partnership for Housing Affordability.
An analysis of the wealth gap, conducted by the Brookings Institution, found in 2016, the typical white family’s net worth, of about $171,000, was about 10 times that of the typical Black family's, of about $17,000.
The Fair Housing Act of 1968 outlawed racial discrimination in housing. However, cities and counties throughout Virginia "are more racially segregated today than they were 50 years ago," the report states.
"Zoning laws now segregate communities by wealth and income," according to the report. "Because minority households statistically have less wealth as a direct result of segregationist zoning laws and other racially discriminatory policies, they are excluded from large parts of Virginia counties, cities and towns that are set aside for houses on large lots."
Minneapolis and the state of Oregon have eliminated single-family zoning in recent years. Rak said the workgroup would examine the effects of those decisions and consider other alternatives for broadening the types of housing allowed in areas historically limited for single-family homes.
Dyke said addressing housing segregation would be a financial boon for localities and the state as a whole.
“It is good for Virginia’s economy to the extent we’re helping create opportunities for people to grow wealth and to have affordable housing available all over the commonwealth,” Dyke said. “It’s going to make us a more attractive location to businesses that are thinking about locating to Virginia or expanding in Virginia.”
Part two of the report, slated for release later this year, will lay out the work group’s recommendations for state and local lawmakers.