Exclusionary Zoning in Cuyahoga County Continues to Cause Segregation, Hamper Mobility of Poor and Minorities

Less than seventeen percent of all developed, housing-oriented land in Cuyahoga County is zoned for multi-family use. Eleven cities in the county ban renters altogether. These findings, from the latest Fair Housing Center study, suggest a pattern of exclusionary land-use practices that continue to limit the mobility of poor and non-White families across the region, particularly to cities with the highest levels of services and amenities.

Exclusionary zoning is systemic (seen across geographies and social groups), institutional (placed within organized and bureaucratic practices that ensure it outlasts individuals), and intentionally persistent (the choice to continue the practice is sustained only by local communities’ choices not to change it). And, according to the Housing Center’s Michael Lepley, that’s exactly why they spent months on their first comprehensive zoning study.

“This has been in the pipeline for 3 to 4 years,” the senior research associate told Scene. “For us, we’re really interested in attacking the structural forces that cause racial segregation. None of us in this agency do much about zoning but we had heard enough that we thought that it probably contributed to race and class segregation. We’ve been thinking about it for a long time.”

Lepley told Scene that the fair housing community often talks about the impact of zoning codes but seeing the concrete evidence will now allow them to speak openly with cities and the county about how they can make their jurisdictions more accessible and equitable.

Does that mean that single-family homes and homeownership are inherently racist? Lepley is quick to discourage that sort of rhetoric.

“On social media people can be really incendiary about that issue, and thats not what this is about. It’s very important to distinguish between the structure of the single family house and the land-use regulation type which is the exclusive single-family use district. The purpose of it is class homogeneity and that class is the white, middle and upper class. Almost 60 percent of the county is zoned so that the most preferential use is only single-family homes. The result of that is exclusion.”

Several cities buck the usual trend of low-income and non-White families moving mostly to areas that have mixed-housing options. Specifically, the majority of Lakewood’s developed land is zoned for multi-family use while only 4 percent of Bedford Heights and only 6.7 percent of Maple Heights, both majority African American communities, are zoned for multi-family use. This pattern could be due to the combined impact of Southern and Eastern settlement patterns as well as the relative affordability of the homes in Maple Heights and Bedford Heights due to the smaller lot sizes.

Lepley notes that despite the exceptions, the pattern persists, especially when you reach the outer ring suburbs where single-family zoning is combined with large-lots, making housing unaffordable to many.

Another factor worth considering is that multi-family zoning can also produce unaffordable housing units, even when those spaces aren’t single-family homes. So, where do luxury apartments come in?

“I don't understand enough about the apartment market to say that luxury apartments are a part of this specific process,” says Lepley. “But in a general sense, our housing market from top to bottom exists in a system [in which] some people are preferred and have power in that system and some people are exploited in that system. In this report, I was thinking about the intent of zoning codes and I think that for most developers, if they bought a bunch of tracts and built single family homes, the original intent of those homes was for sale and the assumption was that single family homes favor and are for owners, whether or not that's the market that they fall in. Codes were implemented at the same time as development and it was clearly to protect the owners living in single family homes.”

In order to counteract the effects of exclusionary zoning, the report suggests a three-pronged approach: 1) state prohibition of exclusionary zoning practices; 2) county, state and federal level restrictions on funds for local services in areas that are exclusionary; and 3) a regional property tax sharing system that can equalize some of the disparate outcomes, such as highly inequitable public school systems.

For more information, read the full report here.
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