Land-use laws influence home prices, class and racial segregation, carbon emissions levels, and labor market efficiency. As such, identifying who writes, adjudicates, and implements such rules is essential to understanding the degree to which they reflect a representative democracy. The Urban Institute conducted a first-of-its-kind survey of land-use decisionmakers nationwide to collect and analyze data on the racial and gender characteristics, housing tenures, and occupations of land-use decisionmaking board members across 482 jurisdictions and 601 land-use decisionmaking bodies within the 50 largest metropolitan areas in the United States. The jurisdictions in this study are broadly, though not exactly, representative of jurisdictions in metropolitan areas nationwide.
Among the localities we surveyed, we find that the people who draft, adjudicate, and implement land-use laws rarely share similar demographics, occupations, or housing tenures as their jurisdiction’s residents. Instead, we find that land-use boards—including planning and zoning commissions, boards of zoning adjustment, and a subset of local legislatures—feature persistent overrepresentation by non- Hispanic white residents, men, homeowners, and real estate or planning professionals.
We specifically find the following:
- Non-Hispanic white residents are overrepresented by 15 percentage points (i.e., the share of non-Hispanic white members on boards is, on average, 15 percentage points higher than the share in the jurisdiction), while Hispanic, Asian, and Black residents are underrepresented by 8, 4, and 1 percentage point(s) respectively. Forty-five percent of land-use boards have a membership that is at least 95 percent white, even though only 5 percent of jurisdictions have such high white population shares. Overrepresentation by non-Hispanic white residents is more pronounced in jurisdictions with a smaller share of non-Hispanic white residents, indicating a persistently inequitable structure channeling white residents into these positions.
- In terms of gender, men are overrepresented by more than 20 percentage points on average, though this result varies by board type, local racial demographics, and region. Zoning commissions are the most male dominated (compared with zoning or planning commissions, local legislatures, or other land-use decisionmaking boards); jurisdictions with lower shares of non-Hispanic white residents and jurisdictions in the West have the highest levels of female representation. No respondent reported any transgender or nonbinary board members.
- Renters are also underrepresented. Their underrepresentation is so extreme that a 1 percent higher share of renters in a jurisdiction is associated with a nearly equivalent (0.88 percent) increase in the overrepresentation of homeowners on land-use decisionmaking boards. Renters are underrepresented in 99 percent of the jurisdictions for which we collected data. In other words, land-use decisionmaking is dominated by homeowners, and the share of renters in a jurisdiction has next to no bearing on how well represented they are in land-use decisionmaking.
- Board members with occupations directly or potentially related to land-use development are overrepresented relative to their share of the national population. People with jobs in legal and business occupations are also more likely to hold positions on such boards than their relative share of jobs would indicate. Meanwhile, there are few board members hailing from the food, health care, and retail sectors, and retirees, homemakers, and unemployed people are similarly underrepresented.
- Jurisdictions with a higher share of liberal residents have higher levels of representation for Hispanic residents and women than do jurisdictions with more conservative residents. Nevertheless, these two groups remain underrepresented, even in liberal jurisdictions. Renters are underrepresented in jurisdictions of all ideological stripes.
We illustrate these findings below.
Land-Use Boards Overrepresent White Residents while Underrepresenting Hispanics, Women, Renters, and People in Certain Occupations
Average share of land-use board membership and local jurisdictional population, by demographic group
WHY THIS MATTERS
We document a largely privileged group of white, male, homeowning, white-collar decisionmakers—not a group of leaders who represent their communities’ respective demographics. Our findings raise questions about whether land-use boards are making planning choices that appropriately reflect local needs and desires. These results may offer one explanation for why US cities have suffered from decades of inadequate housing construction, low levels of housing affordability, and high levels of segregation.
The lack of representativeness on land-use boards may stem from inequitable appointment processes or from restrictions related to board membership; many jurisdictions, for instance, require members to be property owners or to hold specific degrees. Additionally, most jurisdictions provide limited support for participation. The vast majority of positions are uncompensated, burdensome (requiring at least one day’s work per month to attend and prepare for meetings), and lack important supports such as child care. Our data show that boards offering compensation, transit access, and flexible meeting times had, on average, fewer white members and more Black, Asian, and female members. One explanation for this outcome is that jurisdictions interested in promoting inclusivity establish supports to encourage accessibility and expanded participation. We recommend state-level standards—such as requirements for compensation, child care or flexible meeting time options, and elimination of property ownership requirements—to open these roles to groups that are currently underrepresented in land-use decisionmaking.