Single-family zoning preserves century-old segregation, planners say. A proposal to add density is dividing neighborhoods.

By Katherine Shaver November 20, 2021 at 6:00 a.m. EST Washington Post

On the edge of downtown Silver Spring, Dan Reed and his neighbors have been discussing how the Maryland suburb should look and feel, conversations that have flared into sometimes heated debates over race, class and the pace of change.

Reed bristles when he hears that allowing more multifamily housing and townhouses like his would “disrupt, destroy and displace” neighborhoods of single-family houses. To Reed, an urban planning consultant, it’s the same language used to enact 20th-century zoning codes, still in use today, that effectively perpetuated segregation by pricing out lower-income residents.

It’s fine to argue about the effects of increasing density in neighborhoods, Reed said, “But all of the stuff we’re talking about is built on this foundation of racism and exclusion. We can’t escape it.’”

Montgomery County planners agree with him. Eyeing a shortage of housing and soaring home prices, they have proposed changing zoning to make it easier to build duplexes, triplexes, townhouses and small apartment buildings alongside the suburban ideal of detached houses with ample yards. For a century, they say, limiting lots to one house has not only driven up housing costs by restricting the supply of land, but prolonged de facto segregation and the race gap in generational wealth derived from homeownership.

If changes are approved, Montgomery would join a growing movement nationwide that seeks to promote racial equity and add more lower-cost housing by abolishing or relaxing single-family zoning. Efforts gained traction last year following the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer.

The idea of building more homes closer together is testing the essence of suburbia — places born of a quest for living space, greenery and freedom from crowds. It has ignited a firestorm in liberal Montgomery, a once majority-White, upscale bedroom community to the nation’s capital that has prided itself on progressive inclusivity as it becomes more racially diverse and less wealthy.

“It’s a really thorny issue,” said Montgomery planning director Gwen Wright. “I think many people believe the purpose of a suburb is to provide one house on one lot with a picket fence and privacy.”

At least 10 cities, including Minneapolis and Portland, have loosened single-family zoning laws or are considering doing so. New laws in Oregon and California require cities statewide to allow for different housing types in single-family zones, while Arlington County is studying the idea and Prince George’s County is about to. Similar zoning proposals died in recent Maryland and Virginia legislative sessions.

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The Biden administration proposed $5 billion in grants for governments that eliminate state and local zoning it says “contributes to the racial wealth gap” and restricts lower- and moderate-income housing. The social spending plan that passed the House on Friday includes a reduced $1.75 billion for such grants.

“When you exclude people based on income, you are also excluding people based on race,” said Jenny Schuetz, a housing economist at the Brookings Institution. “That may not be the intent, but that’s the effect.”

But what might sound like a laudable goal has proved a tough political fight, even in left-leaning jurisdictions facing severe housing shortages.Advertisement

In the District, planners recommended the city allow more duplexes, triplexes and other “gentle density” in single-family zones — especially in higher-cost areas near transit, jobs and schools — when recently updating a long-term growth plan. However, the D.C. Council sidelined the proposal, calling for additional studies following opposition from residents in single-family neighborhoods, both majority-Black and White.

Andrew Trueblood, director of the D.C. Office of Planning, said the idea might have fizzled because it came up late in a years-long process, adding that planners will try again when the plan is rewritten in 2025. Nexttime, he said, they will explore the idea neighborhood by neighborhood.

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“Having these more nuanced, important discussions is something we’re going to have to do,” Trueblood said. “But I think it’s going to be hard. There are going to be people who feel threatened one way or another, on both sides.”

A ‘toxic atmosphere’ around zoning

In Montgomery, any zoning change would take effect countywide. However, the issue has captured particular attention in neighborhoods around downtown Silver Spring because relaxing single-family zoning also is being considered as part of updating the area’s community plan.

It could be the first such plan in the county, planners wrote, “to acknowledge and begin to address the deep disparities in wealth and homeownership that were shaped by a legacy of discriminatory lending practices, restrictive covenants and single-family zoning and its secondary impacts on neighborhoods that is still being felt today.”

Some zoning change advocates have accused opponents of being “lip-service liberals” who stick Black Lives Matter signs in their front yards but resist the possibility of more economically or racially diverse neighbors. Opponents often are portrayed as older, mostly White, longtime residents with the political power to exclude others. At a recent rally outside county planners’ headquarters in Wheaton, about 40 protesters carried signs that read “Save Our Neighborhoods” and shouted, “Stop rezoning!”

“I’ve been doing this stuff for about 20 years in Montgomery County, and we’ve never had this kind of toxic atmosphere around a particular issue,” said Alan Bowser, president of the Montgomery County Civic Federation.Advertisement

The group has said altering single-family zoning would cause “drastic and unprecedented changes” to neighborhoods, spark gentrification and not provide truly affordable housing.

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Bowser, an attorney who lives east of downtown Silver Spring, said he and other residents understand the “terrible” racist history of some neighborhoods, including those that had racial covenants. He said the house he bought 26 years ago for $185,000 probably would fetch more than $750,000, but that doesn’t mean he or his neighbors are exclusive or wealthy.

“These neighborhoods aren’t all-White — they’re not even affluent,” said Bowser, 69, who is Black. “My street is a bunch of young couples with kids. There are Ethiopians, African Americans, a woman from the Congo. Our neighborhood in East Silver Spring is very diverse, so I don’t see in 2021 the segregated aspects to it. If anything, it’s segregated not by racial divisions, but it’s the ability of people to buy these houses.”

Reed, who is half-Black and half-Indian — and who lives a mile from Bowser — said opponents don’t appreciate that today’s race and wealth gaps between neighborhoods often stem from segregation.

Reed said he could barely afford the $445,000 townhouse he and his partner bought in East Silver Spring in 2019 — it took searching for two years, working five jobs between them, and building up equity in a condo the county had required the developer to set aside as lower-income. Across the street from his townhouse community are detached houses that sell for more than $700,000, often above asking price, he said.Advertisement

On historical maps showing where redlining occurred, he said, “The red line went right down my street. So it’s no surprise that 70, 80 years later [this] whole stretch was apartment buildings and the townhouses where I live. The legacy of these things remains intact, and we have to confront that.”

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Gray Kimbrough, an economist and fellow East Silver Spring resident, said more people need access to the kind of home he and his wife bought for $360,000, which they recently sold after nine years for an “absurd” $780,000. Soaring home prices, he said, are a direct result of a housing supply limited by a zoning code that grew out of racial covenants.

“It has the impact of excluding people that are more likely to be non-White and poorer than you,” said Kimbrough, 40, who is White. “Maybe [opponents of relaxing single-family zoning] don’t want to be racist, but that’s the impact of what they’re doing.”Advertisement

Longtime residents say they can’t speak publicly about wanting to retain the spacious, relatively bucolic feel of their neighborhoods without being unfairly labeled as racist or elitist.

“It’s completely untrue, and it’s hurtful,” said Bill Scanlan, president of the Woodside Civic Association. “It’s a message that’s very effective, but it’s untrue.”

During a recent tour of Woodside, Scanlan said many residents move there because it’s a 10-minute walk to Silver Spring’s Metro station, ethnic restaurants and a vibrant atmosphere. At the same time, he said, they enjoy homes with large yards for kids to play in. Detached houses in Woodside have sold for an average $1.17 million this year, while townhouses have fetched an average of almost $812,000, according to data from real estate broker Liz Brent.

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Scanlan and some other Woodside opponents of looseningsingle-family zoning say they support building affordable, subsidized townhouses and apartments on a county-owned parcel along Georgia Avenue at the edge of their neighborhood. But they say there is no evidence that allowing higher-density housing at market rates would make their community more economically or racially diverse.Advertisement

A county analysis showed that — partly because of high land costs — a new large duplex in or near downtown Silver Spring would sell for about $855,000. A developer told officials in the Town of Chevy Chase that new duplexes there could sell for $1.23 million — less expensive than many new single-family houses but beyond the reach of most buyers.

That would help developers and home builders, say opponents, while residents would be left with the consequences of denser housing: more parked cars clogging streets, fewer trees, stressed water and sewer pipes, more students jamming overcrowded schools and more flooding from storm water running off larger parking areas. Worse yet, they say, is the planners’ proposal to allow some higher-density housing “by right” — meaning builders would no longer have to seek planning board approval or solicit public input, leaving neighbors unable to object.

“We’re not against duplexes, or triplexes for that matter,” said Scanlan, 65, a retired broadcaster who is White. “We’re concerned about the impact of density on a lot of things in the neighborhood.”

Kimblyn Persaud, founder of EPIC of MoCo and a leader of the opposition, said she’s worried her Wheaton neighborhood, with lower land prices than closer-in areas like Silver Spring and Bethesda, would be among the first pursued by developers.

Persaud, who is Black, said her neighborhood is already racially and economically diverse. However, she said, she’s worried luxury duplexes would replace older, smaller and more affordable houses, driving up property taxes while displacing the lower-income residents whom planners aim to help.

“We have affordable housing now, and we want it to be protected,” Persaud said. “We don’t want gentrification on such a large scale.”

In housing-hungry Arlington, planners study building duplexes, triplexes

A gradual process that could take decades

Montgomery planners say new, unsubsidized duplexes, triplexes and quadplexes would provide more “attainable” options for middle-income buyers, as opposed to affordable housing for those with lower incomes.

The alternative, planners say, is continuing to see more larger and pricier custom homes — often dubbed “McMansions” that sell for up to $3 million — that have been replacing smaller, older and less expensive houses torn down in sought-after inner suburbs.

The county would still need to pursue more subsidized housing for lower-income residents, Wright said.

Under the preliminary Montgomery proposals being considered, duplexes, triplexes and quadplexes would have to be “house-scale,” with the same height limitations and setback requirements of detached homes. They also would be required to blend with neighborhoods, possibly such as by having one door at the street entrance.

Quadplexes would be limited to within a mile of Metro, future Purple Line or other rail stations. They also could be built within 500 feet of a major road with a planned Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) line, as well asnear Connecticut Avenue and part of River Road inside the Capital Beltway.

Stacked flats, townhouses and apartment buildings with up to 19 units — whichcould be up to four stories high — would be allowed on some single-family lots that abut those future BRT corridors, as well as Connecticut Avenue and part of River Road inside the Beltway. These larger structures would require planning board approval, as well as public input. Minimum off-street parking requirements, which are two spaces per single-family house, could be reduced for higher-density homes, based on their proximity to transit.

Wright said planners expect that growth in new “missing middle” housing would be “incremental,” based on the 200 or so houses razed in the county each year.

Housing experts say cities that have eliminated or relaxed single-family zoning haven’t seen a flurry of duplex and triplex construction.

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Rebecca Lewis, an associate planning and policy professor at the University of Oregon, said it’s too early to know the full effects of Oregon’s 2019 law, which allows up to four units per single-family lot, depending on a city’s population.

Zoning is one of many factors that determine the cost — and pace — of new home building, she said. Even so, Lewis said, other benefits of opening up single-family neighborhoods, such as promoting racial equity and combating climate change by helping more people live closer to mass transit and jobs, could outweigh potential negatives.

“It’s not going to change neighborhoods overnight,” Lewis said. “It’s going to take decades to really show an impact, and that impact is going to be gradual. I think that’s one way to address the sort of fear-based concerns about neighborhood change and gentrification.”

Experts say it’s also too soon to know how much, if at all, zoning changes can better integrate single-family neighborhoods racially or economically. Development trends can take decades to play out as homes turn over, experts say, and it can be difficult to separatethe effects of zoning from other factors in the housing market.

A study by Iowa State University assistant planning professor Daniel Kuhlmann found that property values in Minneapolis had increased 3 to 5 percent one year after the city eliminated single-family zoning in late 2018. But researchers say longer-term data will be necessary to determine whether, or how quickly, the overall housing supply becomes more affordable, infrastructure gets overwhelmed or residents get priced out.

“A lot of us are interested in racial equity, and we hope these changes might result in more integrated neighborhoods,” said Yonah Freemark, a land use and transportation researcher at the Urban Institute. “Frankly, there’s very little evidence that shows that if you change the zoning, you’ll make [neighborhoods] more integrated. We need more evidence on that.”

Montgomery planners say they aim to recommend any zoning code changes to the county council by the end of the year, and both the council and planning board would hold public hearings before any votes. The idea also is included in a proposed update of the county’s long-term growth policy document, known as Thrive Montgomery 2050.

Montgomery council member Will Jawando (D-At Large), who is Black, said the county must relax single-family zoning, as well as stabilize rents for lower-income residents. He said developers should help pay to fix problems that additional housing can impose on aging infrastructure and crowded schools.

But Montgomery, he said, also must reckon with its discriminatory past.

“I don’t think it’s helpful to beat people over the head and say ‘The only reason you’re against this is because you’re racist,’ ” Jawando said.“Are there people who are against this because they’re racist? Sure. But is everyone? No. I think it’s more that where you live is deeply personal, and change is hard.”