Cities use zoning to ensure their communities look and function the way they want. Local governments enforce zoning codes through regulations and maps that specify what sorts of buildings can be constructed and which land can be used for different purposes—from housing, to retail, to parks.
But when they were implemented in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, zoning laws explicitly enforced racist and classist exclusion. In San Francisco, county ordinances banned laundries in certain neighborhoods to exclude Chinese Americans. In many other cities, councils prevented the construction of apartment buildings in districts reserved for single-family homes to minimize contact between Black and white families and between households with high incomes and low incomes.
Civil rights legislation outlawed such discrimination, but today, zoning often remains a tool for social exclusion and reinforces preexisting inequalities. Zoning restrictions on construction are associated with higher housing costs, and they create some neighborhoods (and even whole cities) that “hoard” resources by preventing people with low incomes—often people of color—from living there.
Cities interested in creating more equitable regions are promoting land-use reforms to improve affordability. Louisville, Kentucky, is undertaking one promising approach. Its Metro government (which represents the agglomerated city-county of Louisville) is revising its zoning process to target rules that exacerbate structural inequality. The Urban Institute is advising on this effort, and we’ve learned lessons that could inform work in other cities.
Acknowledging the past is the first step to charting a more equitable future
Like those of many US cities, Louisville’s original zoning documents promoted racial segregation through land-use regulations. The city’s first comprehensive plan, written by Harland Bartholomew and associates between 1929 and 1931, was designed to address the “haphazard” growth of the city, such as by preventing retail and apartments from being built in single-family districts. Bartholomew—a planner who designed cities nationwide—said he wanted to prevent “racial invasions” causing “blight.”
Recently, Louisville Metro developed a detailed website charting the racist origins of its zoning code and began an “equity review” of its zoning regulations, the Land Development Code (LDC). The review, which incorporates community feedback, identifies barriers to equity in the existing code.
Data are crucial to understanding how zoning policies shape—or hinder—equity
We collaborated with Louisville Metro to inform local decisionmakers about the housing and equity challenges the city is facing. Our analysis showed that among Louisville households with incomes less than $35,000 a year (about half the renter population), more than 80 percent pay more than 30 percent of their income for rent. This disproportionately affects people of color. In Louisville, Black households have median household incomes that are just 60 percent of those of white households, and Latinx household incomes are about 80 percent of white incomes, according to 2019 US Census Bureau data.
One explanation for limited affordability in Louisville is inadequate housing access. Since the 1990s, housing construction hasn’t kept pace with an increasing population, and new housing construction is unevenly distributed. The following map documents segregation in Louisville: neighborhoods that are more than 80 percent Black are concentrated in a few areas west of downtown, and most of the remaining neighborhoods are less than 20 percent Black.
The map also shows that residential building permits issued between 2018 and 2020 are overwhelmingly located in communities where Black people do not live. Neighborhoods with mostly Black residents accounted for only 3 percent of new housing permits, even though 12 percent of the city's population lived there. This comparative analysis of available data could be undertaken in other cities to identify neighborhoods most in need of investment.
Virtual community involvement is an instrumental part of the process
Urban also helped Louisville Metro lead public workshops to learn about residents’ concerns and explore potential solutions. Residents expressed the need to acknowledge and be accountable not only to the racist origins of current zoning but the racist effects these laws still have today. Community members expressed interest in reforms that reduce barriers to constructing accessory dwelling units and eliminate regulatory burdens for multifamily residential construction. They also expressed a desire to substantially increase funding to strengthen affordable housing options and improve housing choice.
Urban’s evaluation of the zoning code showed that new multifamily housing is banned from most of the city. It is difficult to construct more affordable apartments in most neighborhoods, depriving people of all backgrounds the ability to live in communities of their choosing. Most neighborhoods, in addition, have tight limitations even on single-family housing, requiring a minimum of 9,000 square feet per lot, which causes the development of sprawling, unwalkable communities that cost more for potential residents.
Metro government staff are using community engagement sessions to inform the updated LDC. The two-year process involves staff proposing reforms, submitting them for review by the Metro Council, and implementing future land-use changes. Staff have pledged to center racial equity (PDF) throughout the process. Staff at Metro have released Phase 1 (PDF) of proposed reforms, which includes easing the ability to build accessory dwelling units and permitting duplexes outright on properties that are zoned multifamily to increase housing options and affordability.
How other cities can prioritize equity through zoning reforms
Louisville’s local land-use challenges are not unique: Most American cities face class and racial segregation. And Louisville’s initiatives to reform its zoning code are similar to those other communities are considering to address the historic and current implications of land-use rules. Many cities, like Sacramento, California, have targeted single-family zoning as a key priority for elimination in land-use reforms, and that is a positive step toward ensuring more affordable, accessible housing to everyone.
Yet the approach taken by Louisville Metro differs from others because of its comprehensiveness. Government staff are combing through the LDC, identifying any aspects that might be producing inequitable consequences. Building race and class equity through zoning reforms requires
- confronting the racist policies of the past,
- identifying ways they are still fueling inequitable outcomes,
- creating new decisionmaking tables,
- allowing robust community engagement, and
- producing strong accountability measures.
This thorough review of rulemaking and the public process that accompanies it provides a model for other cities looking for ways to reform their land-use regulations.