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The Good Intentions Of People And Politicians: Racial Zoning, Supreme Court Zoning, And Philadelphia Zoning


You’ve heard the mantra that actions speak louder than words. And I’m sure you’ve had someone say to you that they will not hurt you again AND still ended up, hurting you again and again and again. People, and organizations too, want us to remember their benevolent intentions even when the results turn out to not be so benevolent, over and over and over again. I will admit, I’ve had a soft spot for good intentions, people doing things with love, or organizations that mean well. You know, that “God knows their heart” type of crowd! I’m supposed to care that they care, right?! It seems today’s politicians and their policies have lots of good intentions and words too.

"If your actions don't live up to your words, you have nothing to say." -DaShanne Stokes, Sociologist

About 100+ or so years ago, around the start of the 20th Century, times were terrible for black folks in America. You might want to stop reading this blog post now if you are already thinking of ways to debate me on the previous sentence. It was a terrible time and a simpler time too. Politicians' intentions matched their policies (words) and were in perfect sync with their actions and the results. Take the early 1900s housing practices for example. White politicians’ intentions were to keep the black people out of their neighborhoods, their schools, their stores, and, basically, their everything. That intent was matched with loud action and two loud words, racial zoning.


Overall zoning started in the early 1900s as a way to manage land use regulations and city planning. Christopher Silver writes in The Racial Origins Of Zoning In America that “state legislatures nationwide granted cites the power to regulate height, area, location, and use of buildings in any designated part or parts of their corporate limits.” Zoning had the potential to be a tool for social good as well as optimizing land use. That would prove to be wishful thinking.

“What began as a means of improving the blighted physical environment in which people lived and worked became a mechanism for protecting property values and excluding the undesirables.” -Yale Rabin, Philadelphia Urban Planner

Guess who were the “undesirables” that Yale Rabin was referring to? You guessed correct. Black folks. Overt racial zoning, basically planned residential apartheid, was legal and implemented throughout America from the early 1900s until 1917. In 1917, the Supreme Court got involved and declared in the Buchanan v. Warley case that racial zoning was unconstitutional. This should be the moment during this blog post that we all get excited, but I think we all know it is best to temper our 1917 excitement.


Unfortunately, Buchanan v. Warley only impacted white politicians’ public words and stated intentions while they remained laser-focused on wanting the same residential outcomes that occurred in the early 1900s. Christopher Silver writes that “in the wake of the Buchanan decision, racial zoning gave way to the broader notion of a race-based comprehensive planning process.” In theory, neighborhoods separated based on race didn’t have to mean unequal access to quality city planning. However, It did. It became more subtle, more behind the scenes, and more actions with less racist words (said out loud). Racial zoning turns into race-based planning. Slum clearance turns into urban renewal. Apartheid turns into empowerment zones. Gentrification turns into inclusionary zoning.

“People can play dumb all they want, but they always give themselves away in actions.” -Stephanie Perkins, Author


We’ve been attempting to undo the faulty foundation of racial zoning, urban renewal, slum clearances, and redlining for years. This fight continues across many American urban cites. Fast forward to today, Philly is attempting in a variety of ways to undo the bad intentions, bad policies, bad actions, and bad results of past (and some would say present-day too) zoning practices. Now back to watching people and politicians’ actions instead of their words and intentions. Recently, in 2018, the City of Philadelphia passed the mixed-income housing Bill No. 170678. This type of inclusionary zoning was going to be one of the solutions to stopping the decline of affordable housing in Philly.

“The mixed-income housing bill was put forth by Councilmember Maria Quiñones-Sánchez of District 7 and was also sponsored by Council President Darrell Clarke, Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell, and Councilman Kenyatta Johnson. All of these council members represent districts that have a mix of both gentrifying neighborhoods and impoverished residents. The signature piece of the bill would require private developers to build one unit of affordable housing for every nine market-rate housing units. Alternatively, developers have the option to pay the Philadelphia Housing Trust Fund instead of adding affordable housing units.” -Reporting by Curbed Philadelphia

Inclusionary zoning isn’t a cure-all for over a hundred years of racial zoning and there are a lot of research studies on it that have mixed results. One thing that surely reduces the impact of inclusionary zoning aka mixed-income affordable housing bills is making it voluntary instead of mandatory. Guess what happened to Philly Bill No. 170678, mandatory inclusionary zoning or voluntary inclusionary zoning? Yup, voluntary. It did start with good intentions though. Shout out to Councilmember Maria Quiñones-Sánchez for wanting to make it mandatory for developers to include affordable units. Unfortunately, the Philly real estate industry and other Philly politicians didn’t have the will or the want to pursue mandatory inclusionary zoning. I now consider Bill No. 170678 underwhelming at best and a failure at worst. The new bill doesn’t solve the problem it was created to fix. Developers are choosing to pay into the Philadelphia Housing Trust Fund instead of building affordable housing units.

“The debate must move beyond the shallow idea that the housing question comes down to determining the right balance between state and market. Seeing the issue in these simple terms does not work. State action can be used to democratize and redistribute housing, or it can function to preserve inequality and support private profitmaking. Rather than relying upon either the myth of the benevolent state or that of the meddling state, we need to see who actually sets government policy and whose interests are really served by it.” -In Defense Of Housing by David Madden and Peter Marcuse

I want zoning and housing programs to solve the problem they were created to solve. That would have been a MANDATORY inclusionary zoning bill. And while we are on the topic of Philly housing, how can low and middle-income residents in gentrifying neighborhoods in Philadelphia get access to real estate investment opportunities that allow them to participate and profit from the rising tide occurring in their neighborhoods? How do we get to housing policies in Philly like the HUD Choice Neighborhoods Initiative that attempts to combine affordable housing policy with human development programs?

“Finally, we conclude by noting that, although the provision of affordable housing is a necessary component of any economic transformation that aims to be inclusive, affordable housing alone is unlikely to enable disadvantaged households to take advantage of new economic opportunities.” -Producing Affordable Housing In Rising Markets: What Works? by Jenny Schuetz

I believe in the sentiment by Rasheed Ogunlaru, author of Putting the Heart Back into Your Business, that states “in leadership, life and all things it’s far wiser to judge people by their deeds than their speech - their track record rather than their talk.” To the City of Philadelphia, I’ve learned my lesson. I will no longer listen to your intentions or words. I will be watching your actions and results.


Written by Gregory Nesmith, CPC, ELI-MP, Founder & CEO of UNderdogstuff®, Philly native, member of Penn Wharton Entrepreneurship's Incubator, Community Relations Director & Entrepreneurship Mentor at Bridges To Wealth, and soon to be Wharton School alum.

Originally written for Urban Public Policy - Philadelphia Case Study (URBS 250) class at the University of Pennsylvania.

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