Voters and campaign volunteers at the Durham County Library, North Regional in Durham, North Carolina, 2018.
Voters and campaign volunteers at the Durham County Library, North Regional in North Carolina. Gerry Broome/AP

Bias in land use decisions is difficult to measure, but new research in Durham reveals that race has been a significant factor.

Exclusionary zoning, a term referring to local regulations that discourage housing production, has long been associated with heightened racial segregation by several scholars. In many localities, industry is also disproportionately located in communities of color. How much does racial bias influence these outcomes? This is something that has been difficult to measure, as most local officials would likely try to hide prejudicial motivations (if they exist) for their zoning decisions. Alternative theories hold that the entrenched interests of homeowners or the wealthy may largely explain exclusionary zoning, rather than racial bias.

To get at this question, I’ve done research on Durham, North Carolina’s, zoning practices over 70 years. The research suggests an interesting correlation between zoning outcomes and the race of local legislators. My analysis also indicates that race historically influenced zoning decisions but that this changed—in particular during the 1980s as the city elected an increasing number of black legislators.

To conduct my study, I considered the average homeownership rate, income, and racial makeup across the census tracts where various types of zoning decisions occurred. The first two types of zoning decisions I considered were those many scholars and housing advocates associate with exclusionary effects: decisions to decrease the density of residential areas (here dubbed “down-zonings”) and decisions not to increase the density of residential areas (here dubbed “refused up-zonings”).

I found that from 1945 through 1984, down-zonings occurred in neighborhoods that were on average 71 percent white, and refused up-zonings occurred in neighborhoods that were on average 74 percent white. But the city as a whole was on average only 59 percent white in this period. The areas where these exclusionary zoning decisions occurred were also significantly whiter than the areas where decisions did allow increased density. Similar disparities in income and homeownership were not as evident.

The areas that the city re-zoned away from heavy commercial and industrial classifications were on average significantly whiter than the areas where the city re-zoned to these uses, though not significantly whiter than the city as a whole. Again, similar disparities in income and homeownership were not as evident. Together, these findings indicate that into the 1980s, race is a more compelling explanation for the distribution of various decisions related to housing and industry than income or homeownership.

This was also supported by records of local legislative meetings and publications. In a number of cases, legislators made different decisions in zoning cases where the only primary difference was the racial makeup of the area. For example, legislators agreed to increase residential density in a black neighborhood experiencing school overcrowding, but in the same period they reached the opposite conclusion in a white area experiencing the same problem. The clearest disparity in the handling of similar residential re-zoning cases was in public housing, which legislators continued to concentrate within black areas through the 1960s. Another example involved a builder that civil rights activists associated with exploitative practices in black neighborhoods: The city council repeatedly rebuffed his requests in white neighborhoods while accommodating his requests for up-zonings in black areas.

The city council also allowed economic development arguments to outweigh community protest when it came to accommodating heavy commercial and industrial uses in black areas during the postwar decades. While property owners and developers were interested in establishing these uses in white and black-majority areas alike, they had more success in doing so in the latter, where the council approved 31 out of 40 requests between 1945 and 1984, despite mobilization against these rezonings (by comparison, the council approved only half of the requests in white-majority areas). While Durham’s black communities had grown up around opportunities in the city’s tobacco and textile factories, these had mostly shuttered by the second half of the twentieth century, and the industries the city sought to accommodate in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s provided fewer jobs and were more dangerous, often involving the distribution and manufacturing of hazardous chemicals.

Evidence of uneven treatment of white and black areas disappeared from the mid-1980s as Durham elected more black legislators to the city council. At least five council members (out of a total of 13) were black from 1985 on. These legislators, in concert with a growing number of white allies on the council, began to assert a dominant hand in zoning and other affairs, and spurred by crime and a number of industrial accidents in black areas, began to tackle the uneven distribution of lower-income housing and industrial uses in the city. Consequently, from 1985 on, the racial disparities that characterized the distribution of the various zoning decision types disappeared. It should be noted that private reinvestment in central Durham has also driven these trends.

Far from playing an unimportant role, race is central to understanding the way Durham has approached zoning. The city’s legislators were overwhelmingly white until the mid-1980s, when, under diversifying leadership the city began responding to industrial accidents and crime by correcting for past disparities. Given the extent of other racially-motivated practices used by public and private sector actors over the course of U.S. history (racial steering, redlining, blockbusting, etc.) it can hardly be assumed that the Durham experience is an isolated case. This study should serve as a call for further empirical research into the potential role of race in historical and contemporary zoning practices.

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