The Briar Patch— Zoning battles, a Mother’s Day story
- Published: May 20, 2021
“If you care about social justice, you have to care about zoning.” — Richard D. Kahlenberg
Zoning — “an area or stretch of land having a particular characteristic, purpose, or use, or subject to particular restrictions.”
An April 19 New York Times opinion piece by Richard D. Kahlenberg entitled “The ‘New Redlining’ Is Deciding Who Lives in Your Neighborhood,” was in the packet for last Monday’s Village Council meeting. Council member Marianne MacQueen added the article — and it certainly catches the eye, if you are paying attention.
Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation whose research is centered on segregation in schools and housing, gives a pointed explanation of the historical evolution of zoning based on single-family homes. “Single-family exclusive zoning, which was adopted by communities shortly after the Supreme Court struck down explicit racial zoning in 1917, is what activists call the ‘new redlining,’” he writes in his piece, which references President Biden’s massive infrastructure bill. The bill includes a proposed $5 billion program that would award grants to communities that actively get rid of “exclusionary zoning policies.”
Ah, zoning. A word that creeps into the lexicon of common conversation in Yellow Springs. A fundamentally two-faced practice that is deftly utilized in Yellow Springs depending on the objective. Zoning in Yellow Springs on first impression has been used to protect the environmental and agricultural roots of this community. A good thing. But it is also an elitist, exclusionary and discriminatory policy.
Racial discrimination is one piece of the conglomerate, but Kahlenberg also candidly calls out “class snobbery” and doesn’t mince words about who is driving this practice, writing, “If race were the only factor driving exclusionary zoning, one would expect to see the policies most extensively promoted in communities where racial intolerance is highest, but in fact the most restrictive zoning is found in politically liberal cities, where racial views are more progressive.” Also, a fact — African American middle-class communities have sometimes utilized zoning laws to stop multifamily dwellings from being built.
The article reads like a gut punch to our village, and I encourage people to read it fully. Kahlenberg is very clear that these policies are alive and well and are in fact embraced, citing that most American cities completely prohibit the construction of “relatively affordable homes — duplexes, triplexes and larger multifamily units — on three quarters of residential land.” However, what is notable is that he also links two issues that our residents profess to care deeply about — affordable housing and climate change. “There is widespread agreement that laws banning the construction of multifamily housing promote damage to the planet,” he states.
The New Redlining is really the same old, same old.
This Briar Patch column now oddly unfolds itself into a Mother’s Day tribute of sorts in honor of mothers who have fought for their families to live safe and meaningful lives, to actively contribute to the communities in which they reside, regardless of race or income. You see, there are social zones where battles for equitable housing and education reside in a governance structure that exists outside of federal, state and local policy. Housing is ubiquitously tied to education, because of zoning practices’ relation to property taxes. Consistently central in the battles over fair and equitable housing and education are Black mothers.
Black mothers, grandmothers and aunties are rooted in a social and governance structure that honors them as arguably the most salient and powerful forces in the African American community. As were our ancestors in many African societies, Black women are at the center of our communities. This social structure is often in opposition to how American society views and treats Black women, but it is why you see Black women forcefully taking on issues that affect their families — they are the vanguard in the fight for equal housing and education.
My parents and older siblings lived in Springfield in the late 1960s. My parents, victimized by the discriminatory zoning policy of redlining, could not find a home in Springfield. The racist and illegal practice was thoroughly ingrained in the housing market. They moved to Yellow Springs, because although it was a little more expensive than surrounding communities, the local banks were less racist in their home loan policies.
While in Springfield, my mother was president of the PTA for Black parents – because like numerous other organizations that profess to represent the interests of everyone, the Springfield School District at that time was mired in a racist identity that only served the interests of white people. The district was so flagrantly racist that Black people, largely at the behest of Black mothers, organized themselves to advocate for their children. The schools, despite an official policy of integration, were largely segregated through the illegal zoning practice of redlining. For an utterly mesmerizing and well-researched piece about its devastating effects, I highly recommend reading writer Ta’Nehisi Coates’ long form essay for The Atlantic magazine, “The Case for Reparations.”
The Black PTA organization, advocating and fighting for Black students to have access to the same resources as white students, was suspicious. White students, whose families lived in more integrated neighborhoods, were suddenly able to attend “better” schools with predominantly white populations. Their suspicions were confirmed when it was discovered that the district was undermining the educational equity of Black students by cagily rezoning white family homes. They drew maps that linked a single-family home located in the same block as multiple Black homes into districts with newer schools and educational resources filled with white children. If this playbook sounds familiar, this is also a gerrymandering technique that states use to draw congressional voting districts.
So how did the Black PTA find out about this? According to my mother, the school district discussed it during their school board executive closed-door meetings, and in front of a mother who was a member of the Black PTA. She also happened to be a custodian for the school district, cleaning offices after hours and during these closed-door meetings held by the school board. Arrogant and certain in their power, board members just didn’t see her. Invisibility is a superpower, sometimes.
One person’s trash is another’s liberation strategy.
The long and the short of it is that this mother told the Black PTA group about the plans. And because she emptied trash cans, my mother asked if she’d be willing to save anything thrown away, to gather documented evidence. The woman, whose name I don’t know, bravely agreed to do it, putting her job and livelihood in jeopardy if she was caught. Through evidence thrown in the trash, the Black PTA group discovered a concerted and systematic effort to violate the rights of Black children, denying them their rights to an equal education, and were able to stop it. Among those children were my siblings, who were able to finish growing up in Yellow Springs when my parents purchased a home here.
It is in the spirit of these Black mothers I say Happy Mother’s Day. Keep fighting the good fight for social justice and change.