My View with Frank Putzu: Misguided approach to single-family zoning

My View with Frank Putzu: Misguided approach to single-family zoning
Frank Putzu

Single-family homeowners are increasingly coming under attack in Alexandria, and it’s about to get uglier.

City officials are planning to propose new zoning reforms aligned with the City of Minneapolis, which eliminated single-family zones in favor of hyper density. The rationale for new proposals to end so-called “restrictive” zoning and add “infill” housing to neighborhoods currently protected from overdevelopment is that single-family zoning intentionally perpetuates discrimination, and that new policies must be adopted to end this form of “apartheid,” as Mayor Justin Wilson has claimed in pressing for housing reforms.

Wilson and other Alexandria officials are currently fixated with citing Richard Rothstein‘s book, “The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America,” as the basis for their zeal to eliminate single family housing. The book is interesting, perhaps more for the fact that it has come under withering peer criticism for being – as reviewers have noted – a “simple story featuring conspiracies and one-dimensional villains” and “comfort food.”

In contrast, another more recent and much-cited book on the same topic is “Moving Toward Integration: The Past and Future of Fair Housing,” written by UCLA professors of law, sociology and economics. Reviewers have noted that it concludes that “housing discrimination is no longer a major impediment to integration and that, despite a slow and erratic record, the U.S. is winning the battle against housing segregation.”

Unlike the post-war period, modern policies must be specifically tailored to precise facts in the locality. They suggest, for example, “mobility grants,” which would assist homebuyers to integrate any neighborhood lacking diversity and “affordability easements” in deeds, especially in neighborhoods in the midst or at risk of gentrification.

In other words, “Moving Toward Integration” actually undermines the city’s rationale for dismantling single-family neighborhoods under the guise of achieving social equity and shoving hyper density down your street, whether you originally chose to live in a dense part of Alexandria or not. The city relies too much on breaking down what is working and not enough on improving what we have.

Another well-cited criticism of Rothstein’s approach to housing reform is that he is “vague on the details and even more vague on matters of cost.”

Combined with the fact that there is no concrete evidence that eliminating single-family zoning actually increases the supply of affordable housing or improves diversity, the coming zoning reforms will almost surely erode or eliminate any sense of certainty around what can be built on any given residential site. What this intervention will mean for residents and property owners is anyone’s guess.

Rothstein himself once cautioned in an interview: “Of course, many of the advocates of reform focus on trying to preserve a share of housing in the gentrifying neighborhoods for the previous residents. They’re usually unsuccessful, but even if they were successful, the majority of those residents would be displaced.” This pattern is exactly what we have seen in Alexandria.

Del Ray, for instance, was once an affordable and diverse community. Post-gentrification, it appears to be the most expensive and least diverse neighborhood in Alexandria, according to the data collection site,

Also indisputable is the recurring pattern of developers committing pathetic numbers of affordable units in luxury developments where affordable housing once stood in Alexandria. We have all seen Alexandria get less affordable as it has grown denser.

And by the way, it’s not going so well in Minneapolis, either. According to a recent report by the Minneapolis Star Tribune, the city has lost 14,000 residents during the last year as people flee the city’s degrading quality of life.

In the end, our city officials appear to be interested in density for density’s sake, not to address underlying social issues.

Alexandrians interested in this issue should read “Moving Toward Integration.” It is a work of strong scholarship and research. City planners would be wise to read it, and move away from polemics. The writer is a West End resident.