Your View: Goodbye American Dream

Your View: Goodbye American Dream

To the editor: 

I challenge anyone who thinks housing affordability is not a problem. However, I also challenge anyone who thinks there is a simple solution. A recent editorial in the New York Times by Peter Coy linked the nationwide affordable housing shortage to land use reforms initiated during the 1920s.

At that time land use was generally unregulated, resulting in what Coy describes as a landscape of “…chaotic cities and towns, where a lack of controls on land use allowed grimy factories, livery stables and the like to spring up in residential neighborhoods.” The solution, a novel progressive reform: zoning.

It was unforeseen how zoning could be manipulated to solidify racial segregation and exclude undesirable ethnic and socioeconomic classes from gaining access to selected neighborhoods. During the latter half of the 20th century, new reforms were enacted to eliminate discriminatory zoning practices. Despite these changes single family housing accessibility remained inequitable.

Additionally, neighborhoods zoned exclusively for single-family housing generally appreciate more than areas with other forms of housing. As a result, even absent discriminatory policies, these neighborhoods tend to be out of reach for less affluent diverse populations.

It is understandable that affordable housing advocates underscore past socioeconomic harms and inequities associated with current zoning policies. Zoning reforms like those recently enacted by Arlington County are appealing because they promise to solve disparities in affordable housing. However, are these reforms proven? And are there safeguards against manipulation, abuse or unintended consequences?

A tenant of the American Dream is home ownership. Not a condominium, duplex or townhouse, but that venerated suburban home, on a quiet street, with a driveway and fenced in yard. Moreover, it has been the most accessible means of generational wealth accumulation.

African American homeownership aspirations were denied, hindered – or as was the case in Alexandria – revoked through eminent domain. For most of the 20th century, even after passage of the landmarks Fair Housing Act of 1968, African American homeownership remained, as coined by the Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes, “a dream deferred.”

While residual vestiges of racist policies in the banking and the real estate industry occasionally still manifest barriers to homeownership, Alexandria’s existing zoning structure imposes none. Today African Americans can purchase a home anywhere in the City of Alexandria. Still, proponents of land use deregulation claim reform is necessary to reduce homeownership barriers and open neighborhoods historically inaccessible to African American and other minorities. What advocates fail to recognize is the potential inverse effect zoning deregulation is likely to induce.

A central objective of single-family housing deregulation is to open these neighborhoods to diverse housing stock such as apartments, condos, duplexes and townhomes. However, this necessitates shrinking the stock of single-family homes. The ensuing scarcity will drive single-family home values up, making them even more unaffordable for most citizens, disproportionally so for African Americans.

A dream deferred to a dream denied, “Housing for All” is yet another in a long list of hollow and broken promises to African American and other historically disadvantaged citizens of Alexandria. Is this palatable?

Zoning regulations began as a noble progressive solution to real problems. They were soon manipulated for what

are now acknowledged nefarious purposes. Before making an equally consequential zoning decision, our elected officials and policy makers need to thoroughly weigh the outcomes these changes could invite, and institute appropriate safeguards up front, not after the fact.

Perhaps the most prudent course of action for now is to pause and see whether Arlington’s land use deregulations achieve the desired outcomes of accessibility, affordability and availability. That is, housing for all.

For those who believe we cannot afford to wait, I ask “Can we afford to get it wrong?” Are Alexandrians OK with further restricting, and potentially eliminating, single family homeownership opportunities in Alexandria, and saying goodbye to this slice of the American Dream?

-Roy Byrd, Alexandria