Zoning Laws, Housing Segregation and Educational Inequality

Test score gaps by MSA. Map credit: Brookings Institution.

by James A. Bacon

Following the lead of the book, “Why Nations Fail,” Brookings Institution scholar Jonathan Rothwell classifies national institutions into two categories: “open” institutions that diffuse power and opportunity and “extractive” institutions that concentrate power and limit opportunity. Among the extractive institutions he espies in the United States is zoning. As he writes for the New Republic:

Anti-density zoning — embodied in lot-size and density regulations — is an extractive institution par excellence. Through the political power of affluent homeowners and their zoning boards, it restricts private property rights — the civic privilege to freely buy, sell, or develop property — for narrow non-public gains. Property owners in a jurisdiction benefit from zoning through higher home prices (because supply is artificially low) and lower tax rates (because population density is kept down, as school age children are kept out), while everyone else loses.

In a new report for the Brookings Institution, Rothwell endeavors to measure the impact of restrictive zoning policies upon the ability of lower-income Americans, in particular African-Americans and Hispanics, to access higher quality schools. In a ranking of the 100 largest metro areas, he finds that zoning restrictions lead to higher housing costs, more economic segregation and greater gaps in test scores between poor and affluent neighborhoods.

The proxy measure Rothwell uses to rank zoning restrictiveness seems to be a bit of a stretch:  the prevalence of land-use law firms. Other than that, his methodology seems reasonable enough. Here’s how Virginia’s three main Metropolitan Statistical Areas (MSAs) ranked nationally:

You can view his snapshots of Virginia’s major metro areas here:

Hampton Roads

Interestingly, on a national level the MSAs with the strongest zoning restrictions, greatest gaps in housing costs, economic segregation and test score gaps between rich and poor tend to be the most liberal. As seen in the map above, the greatest gaps exist in large, Northeastern MSAs. The most egalitarian metros are clustered in central Florida.

Do liberal Northeastern elites deliberately pursue policies that foster racial segregation and inequality? To put it more bluntly, are liberal elites closet racists? As tempted as I am to make that argument because I’m so sick of liberals labeling conservatives as racist on the basis of flimsy data, I just can’t justify it. I’m more inclined to chalk up the segregation to the law of unintended consequences. Liberals pass laws and enact policies with the purest of intentions — and remain oblivious to the outcomes.

When it comes to zoning restrictions (or the prevalence of land-use attorneys), Virginia’s metros rank in the middle nationally. Richmond is more segregated than the national average, Hampton Roads less so. Richmond’s housing cost gap is 14th highest in the nation, Washington’s 20th lowest. Consistent with  Rothwell’s thesis, Richmond schools show higher test score gaps than Washington and Hampton Roads schools — though the gap is considerably lower than predicted by the level of economic and housing segregation.

It’s interesting data. Make of it what you will.

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  1. According to School officials, Fairfax County Public Schools have around 25% of its student body eligible for free or low-cost lunches. We likely have more low-income children than anywhere else in the state. I don’t buy the idea zoning keeps out low-income people.
    Indeed, even Houston, TX, which has no zoning ordinance, controls land use through the aggressive use of land covenants. There is a right to reasonable control of land use and a need to balance growth with protecting the interests of existing residents and businesses.

  2. DJRippert Avatar

    TMS – Too Many Statistics.

    How would the authors like the Washington MSA to change? The MSA is composed of parts of two separate states and a federal district.

    The only way that this study would make any sense in DC would be to decompose the area into MD, VA and DC. Then, if you can find differences within a jurisdiction you might be onto something.

    One thing you would find is that the income inequality in Washington, DC is greater than any state. In fact, it’s not even close.


    You would also find that relatively equal income distributions are more frequently found in states that are known as conservative – Utah and Alaska are the #1 and #2 most equal states, Mass, Conn, NY and DC are #’s 48 – 51.

    Maryland has considerably less income inequality than Virginia.

  3. some schools in Spotsylvania are 40+% lunch subsidized, just FYI. Many RoVa schools can be 60 or 80% lunch subsidized.

    but that’s not the issue.

    the issue is the school within a certain area and where the higher dollar homes are verses where the schools are.

    The biggest single factor in school inequality is teachers quality and you’ll find in upscale neighborhoods that the school systems work hard to provide high quality teachers and in the less upscale areas is where new teachers straight out of college are hired – to teach a much tougher demographic – kids who often are on subsidized lunches.. and whose home life is not guided by college-educated white collar parents.

    I’m not so sure about Maryland. There are certainly pockets in the west and in the east that are lower on the totem pole.

    re: density.

    density requires infrastructure – primarily water/sewer. You physically and fiscally cannot put water/sewer everywhere so you make choices about where you will “invest” … that’s what affects zoning quite a bit.

    A developer can sure enough make a “proposal” for density but what he is really proposing is for the locality to put in water/sewer and expand the treatment plant – usually with taxpayer money.

    We have a number certain down here in Spotsy as to exactly how many connections we have available until we have to expand the plant – and we know that expansion is going to be incredibly costly and the question is – should we be charging the pro-rata hookup cost that will go to pay for expansion or should we wait until we run out of hookups and increase the tax rate to pay for expansion?

    these are not arbitrary “anti-growth” things.. they are real logistical and financial things.

  4. DJRippert Avatar

    On a sad note I will take leave of my usual anti-Richmond chatter.

    I was sad to hear that Richmond native and University of Richmond / Atlanta Falcons standout Ray Easterling passed away. Easterling played on one of the finest defenses in NFL history with the Atlanta Falcons. The “gritz blitz” was always a treat to watch.

    Apparently, Easterling suffered from depression possibly caused by repeated concussions suffered over his years of playing football. The depression got the better of Easterling and he committed suicide at his Richmond home.

    Born and raised in Virginia, Ray Easterling was one of the best athletes to come from the Commonwealth. He was a success after football as a businessman and people across the state should mourn the loss of such a talented man.

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