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When Black Lawmakers Get Elected, Zoning Decisions Change

Bias in land use decisions is difficult to measure, but new research in Durham reveals that race has been a significant factor.
Voters and campaign volunteers at the Durham County Library, North Regional in North Carolina.
Voters and campaign volunteers at the Durham County Library, North Regional in North Carolina.Gerry Broome/AP

Exclusionary zoning, a term referring to local regulations that discourage housing production, has long been associated with heightened racial segregation by several scholars. In many localities, industry is also disproportionately located in communities of color. How much does racial bias influence these outcomes? This is something that has been difficult to measure, as most local officials would likely try to hide prejudicial motivations (if they exist) for their zoning decisions. Alternative theories hold that the entrenched interests of homeowners or the wealthy may largely explain exclusionary zoning, rather than racial bias.

To get at this question, I’ve done research on Durham, North Carolina’s, zoning practices over 70 years. The research suggests an interesting correlation between zoning outcomes and the race of local legislators. My analysis also indicates that race historically influenced zoning decisions but that this changed—in particular during the 1980s as the city elected an increasing number of black legislators.