What if Black people just controlled the development and zoning in their own neighborhoods?

I watched Bernie Sanders jump into the housing/YIMBY fray without really incorporating any of the lessons of the past few years of conflict between renters of color and coastal YIMBYs. The act lead to an unfortunate amount of Bernie-splaining, of which there is already plenty, and I didn’t have the time or the health to get involved and get used as a Twitter punching bag by the considerable overlap of Smartest Boy Urbanists/Bernie supporters.

I’ve been thinking about local control for a long time, and listening to various tenant advocates, and I finally finished The Color of Law. I think for American cities, at least, civil rights imperatives require cities to scale back local control over land use and development in white neighborhoods and expand local control over land use and development in Black neighborhoods, at lest until we see the disparities in average family wealth and other key measures of economic and social well-being equalize among Black and white households, families, individuals.

Should it be forever policy? No. You know how I feel about static policies.

Do I know how all the details should be laid out? Nope. But Black Lives Matter laid out the general idea in their manifesto. Sociologist Robert Bullard years and years ago about shifting the burden of proof that a factory or new development would be beneficial to a community onto the developer rather than expecting communities to proof it will be harmful. I’ve written elsewhere about how that practice could mirror the land use referenda processes seen in various examples in South Korea.

I really don’t see why such an approach couldn’t work to blunt the potential effects of upcoming on Black communities already threatened by gentrification. Since so much of what is screwed up about zoning and housing affordability lands at the feet of white supremacy and affluent, white control over land use that undoing the problems we have created there by addressing those radicalized practices strikes me as a lot more just–and workable–than trying to act like we could achieve some color-blind YIMBY policy that rules all places.

The problem to me is that a) exclusionary behavior in white neighborhoods perpetually leads to both housing shortage and pressures to build/develop/gentrify (yes I used that word) Black communities and communities of color. So just by addressing one of the problems–white exclusion–you still leave communities of color as open season. Upzone like hell in white neighborhoods, undo racial segregation, and let Black neighborhoods approve what they want to approve and veto what they don’t want.

Before anybody gets all up in my face about how we could never legally treat Black and white neighborhoods differently, um, we have treated Black and white neighborhoods differently in cities since the outset of zoning. Historically, it’s way past Black neighborhoods’ turn to tell the rest of the city what’s going to happen and what isn’t.

BTW, this proposal is a probably political nonstarter, but I don’t take ideas off the table just because white people won’t like them. Bernie is probably already in trouble with the suburban voter with his baseline proposal as it is.

You should check out our podcast on Why Cities Lose to learn more about why urban progressives like Bernie have trouble winning in American politics and why even very good urban policy die on the vine.

BTW, I am sure scholars of color have already made these points and have maybe even some solid plans for going forward. Hit me if you have names I should put at the beginning of this post to direct more readers there.