How Independence Uses Zoning to Codify Segregation

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click to enlarge Greg Kurtz and his deplorable anti-homeless crusade in Independence - Illustration by Joel Herrera
Illustration by Joel Herrera
Greg Kurtz and his deplorable anti-homeless crusade in Independence

When the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless learned that Independence Mayor Gregory Kurtz was exerting his influence to force Lutheran Metropolitan Ministry out of a contract with the Ramada Inn on Rockside Road, it attempted to get in touch.

Kurtz never responded, and so the organization penned an open letter earlier this month harshly condemning the suburb's actions in the context of the pandemic.

"Rather than responding to the immediate housing and social service needs of our neighbors, the city chose to install a mobile police surveillance unit near the hotel and to expand the city’s nuisance ordinance to include commercial businesses," the letter read. "These acts of criminalizing homelessness only deepen the trauma and prevent people from finding a safe place to call home."

The letter also focused on the persistence of racist housing policies, and noted that in Independence, zoning laws prohibit multifamily housing units anywhere in the city. 

"Local and national research provides strong evidence on how zoning is a tool to further codify racism, classism, and segregation. Decades of racist housing policy (redlining, residential segregation, white flight, etc.) have created this reality and reiterated the ideals of property and profit over human life and dignity," the letter read. columnist Leila Atassi highlighted these policies as well in her column earlier this month on the Independence controversy and Cuyahoga County Executive Armond Budish's complicity. 

Michael Lepley of the Fair Housing Center for Rights and Research confirmed to Scene that Independence has excluded multifamily housing via zoning. And as NEOCH pointed out in its letter, this makes the community virtually off-limits for renters, working class, and working poor people. Owning a single-family home is the only way to live there, and the median home value in Independence is nearly $300,000.

Last year, the Fair Housing Center analyzed housing laws in Cuyahoga County municipalities and found that Independence was one of 11 with this type of exclusionary zoning on the books. Independence joins the City of Highland Heights; the Villages of Bentleyville, Bratenahl, Brooklyn Heights, Gates Mills, Glenwillow, Hunting Valley, Moreland Hills, and Walton Hills; and Chagrin Falls Township.

In a more recent report, the Fair Housing Center also found that Independence was one of only two school districts in the county — Bay Village is the other — where multifamily housing was "nearly entirely" excluded. The report found that in the municipalities of most outer-ring suburban school districts, multifamily housing is permitted on only 5 percent or less of the municipality's total land. That's the case in Brecksville-Broadview Heights City School District, Chagrin Falls Exempted Village Schools, Mayfield City School District, Orange City School District, Richmond Heights Local Schools, Solon City School District, and Strongsville City Schools. (In the Bay Village and Independence School Districts, multifamily housing is permitted on less than one percent of the land.)

Though Independence Mayor Greg Kurtz denied the assertions in NEOCH's letter and said it was "outrageous" for NEOCH to attack Independence "with the broad brush of national injustices and 'wrongs of history,'” the Fair Housing Center report explained that zoning is indeed a mechanism for the preservation of racial segregation. 

"Zoning is not the sole explanatory factor of racial segregation in Cuyahoga County, but one of many tools that caused racial segregation," the 2020 report states. "Explicit refusal to rent or sell based on race, blockbusting, and racial steering by real estate agents caused segregation. Redlining, strategic municipal disinvestment, and urban renewal caused segregation. Highway construction and white flight to the suburbs caused segregation, as did municipal fragmentation paired with exclusionary zoning. What makes zoning different is that it codifies racially segregated living patterns, and while many of the other factors listed have been discredited or made illegal, zoning persists. Zoning is part of the structure of racism that maintains racial segregation and racial inequality."

Independence, for the record, is 96% white. And as NEOCH has argued and as history demonstrates, that's not accidental.

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About The Author

Sam Allard

Sam Allard is the Senior Writer at Scene, in which capacity he covers politics and power and writes about movies when time permits. He's a graduate of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University and the NEOMFA at Cleveland State. Prior to joining Scene, he was encamped in Sarajevo, Bosnia, on an...
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