Zoning Restrictions

Learn the history of zoning, how Austin’s zoning currently works, what the city is doing to improve it, and what more can be done.

Zoning is one of the strongest invisible forces that shapes our cities and neighborhoods. Here we’ll first cover the history and origins of zoning, then we’ll discuss current zoning laws, and finally what is and can be done to fix zoning.

A “Brief” History of Zoning

To put it bluntly, zoning is a direct extension of government mandated and enforced racial segregation. While massive strides have been made with ending Jim Crow laws and forced racial segregation of schools, transportation, and public facilities there still exists the lesser known issue of government enforced segregation of our cities.

The first zoning laws in the US were based on race and this racial zoning was legal within the US until 1917 when it was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in Buchanan v. Warley. This case was initially prompted by William Warley, a NAACP lawyer, who attempted to buy land in Louisville, Kentucky and occupy a home on it. Louisville had a zoning law that explicitly forbid Black Americans from occupying homes in Louisville. Due to this law William Warley argued he should not have to fulfill his agreement to buy the land because he could not live on it.

Blacks should be quarantined in isolated slums in order to reduce the incidence of civil disturbance, to prevent the spread of communicable disease into nearby white neighborhoods, and to protect property values among the White majority

– J. Barry Mahool (via thebaltimorestory.org)

Ultimately the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that excluding Black Americans from White neighborhoods infringed upon White land-owner’s right to sell their property to whomever they wished. Thus any race based zoning was now illegal and unenforceable throughout the US. The court paid no concern to Black American’s right to live where they wanted.

Euclidean Zoning

In the months prior to the 1917 Supreme Court decision the racist and wealthy within US cities got to work devising ways to side step this ruling. To keep up the violation of American citizen’s civil and constitutional rights.

A New York City based organization called the Fifth Avenue Association created a campaign that would take racial zoning and make it much more insidious. Rather than excluding based on race or ethnicity the new laws could exclude based on attributes more common to Black, Brown, and White immigrant Americans.

The first such campaign for this new kind of zoning was termed “Save New York” and it targeted garment factories on 5th Avenue. However the factories themselves were not really an issue to the Fifth Avenue Association and White New Yorkers. Instead the issue was that garment workers were primarily Jewish and Italian immigrants. If they could legislate away the garment industry they could legislate away these ethnic groups.

The campaign’s goals unfortunately succeeded all too well and the first modern Euclidean zoning law was enacted in New York on July 25, 1916.

At the opening of the 20th century, tens of thousands of garment workers began to clog the streets of Fifth Avenue, strolling and window-shopping, and meeting informally to discuss the vagaries of the trade. For property and business owners along Fifth Avenue, however, the workers constituted nothing short of an immigrant horde that had to be stopped.

Source: “A Stitch in Time: A History of New York’s Garment District” by Gabriel Montero

This new style of zoning quickly spread throughout the US. In fact the first Supreme Court case concerning Euclidean zoning, Euclid v. Amber, was heard in 1926. The case concerned the Village of Euclid’s new zoning law designed to keep “industrial Cleveland” from changing the “character of the village”. While a lower court determined that Euclid’s zoning law was unconstitutional the Supreme Court ultimately sided with the village and upheld the exclusionary zoning. Now with a Supreme Court decision similar use-based zoning towards discriminatory ends was further emboldened.

A City Plan for Austin

Just a few years later Austin penned its first planning document in 1928, “A City Plan for Austin, Texas” that included bountiful amenities for its White residents, and segregation for its Black residents who would be pushed to the East side and then forgotten about. According to “The Color of Law” by Richard Rothstein their roads were left less paved, their sewers unmaintained and clogged, and their bus routes suspended in the summer.

Over time more approaches to zoning were devised such as surreptitious increases to minimum lot sizes from none up until 1929 to 3,000 square feet in 1930, then 3,500 in 1941, and a whopping 5,750 square feet in 1946. Lot sizes were then paired with the creation of single family zoning, setbacks, and so on. Each of these policies serving to further exclude Black and Brown Americans from home ownership by making it prohibitively expensive for them to own property within White neighborhoods.

Streets would be widened and paved to account for increasing automobile use (Austinites were already complaining about traffic in 1928). Boulevards would be sculpted and lined with trees. Playgrounds and parks would be built within a half-mile walk of every person in the city […]

And black Austinites would be shunted into a new “[black] district.”

Source: “The Problem We Still Live With” by Ryan Puzycki

And thus we find ourselves with the result: two Austins. One of which has benefited immensely from repeatedly pushing people out and the other which has repeatedly suffered from being pushed.

When anti-housing advocates ask to preserve single family zoning, to put all new housing on the East side, and to build further and further away they ask to continue the same segregationist policies that the city has practiced for nearly 100 years.

Austin’s Present Day Zoning

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Fixing Zoning

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