December 9, 2021

Racism and Single-Family Zoning in BC

I admit it: I get a little thrill when seeing something I wrote being referenced elsewhere – even when the writer disagrees.  At least it means they read it!

But there’s no thrill in seeing those references evoked to mean the opposite of what I explicitly intended.  That’s not a misinterpretation; that’s a deliberate misreading.

Yes, I’m looking at you, Lisa Helps, Mayor of Victoria.

In the first of a three-part series on middle-missing housing, Helps references me in her blog when discussing the origins of single-family zoning:

The racist and exclusionary housing of single family zoning has been well documented, yet that history doesn’t seem to be well known in Victoria, and it’s not yet part of the conversation we’re having about Missing Middle Housing and the elimination of single family zoning that the City is proposing. It’s important to understand that the current zoning of land in Victoria – and cities across North America – has racist, exclusionary roots. Dismantling single family zoning is yet another way we can address systemic racism.

In 1916, the City of Berkeley, California implemented North America’s first single family zoning in the Elmwood neighbourhood. Although the language of the zoning itself was written without reference to race, the explicit purpose of the bylaw was to keep the neighbourhood white and to exclude Blacks and Asians . As urban planner Gordon Price writes, “Its intentions were nakedly segregationist. The idea was conceived largely as a tool for white homeowners to eject Asian laundries from an otherwise segregated neighborhood, and to stop a ‘negro dance hall’ from setting up shop on ‘a prominent corner’.”

First point, I’m not professionally an urban planner (but thanks  for the compliment.)  Second, that’s not me being quoted in her blog but Matthew Fleischer, The San Francisco Chronicle’s editorial page editor, who blames racist planners in Berkeley for the origins of s-f zoning.  Thirdly, it’s a conclusion I rejected:

… the narrative is misleading – not because, as Brent Toderian notes in the editorial, that racial segregation wasn’t a factor, but because it wasn’t the dominant or necessary one.  For a community like Berkeley in the 1920s (or Vancouver in the time of Bartholomew), race was not a threat to the overwhelming white majority (in Canada, 96 percent of the population).

Note that my post was not a denial of racism.  In the 1920s, it existed in Berkeley, in Vancouver, in some degree pretty much everywhere.  Nor is it a denial that land and racism went hand-in-hand: Chinatown is evidence of that.  But over time, racial covenants or any explicit form of segregation were struck down legally, or were socially rejected and condemned – or became irrelevant as immigrants of colour who initially clustered on arrival then moved into neighbourhoods across the city and newer suburbs in the region.  Zoning nonetheless continued everywhere and still remains the primary tool of land designation.   But it’s not because of residual racism, systemic or otherwise – with one very large and egregious exception: indigenous peoples.

Let me quote myself to explain why single-family housing emerged in the first place, especially in the 1920s in cities like Victoria and Vancouver, as the dominant form of housing by far.

… I think the primary reason … was an economic reality: land was cheap and newly accessible.  Before the electric streetcar (and then the automobile), cities were dense and mixed by land use and social status because they had to be.  …  That all changed once ‘suburbs’ became possible, starting in the mid-19th century with the advent of rail.

Land prices dropped to the point where even working-class people could afford enough property to imitate the rich and build their own homes, separate from every other, and have the luxury of a front yard and the necessity of a rear garden.  …

People, no matter their class or race, like that stuff.  They love the garden city it makes possible,  Of course class matters; that’s a human consideration in every culture, and when it is synonymous with race it can be toxic.  But it doesn’t go away with a change of colour on the zoning map.

Zoning became the device to provide certainty to those who had achieved not just the much-desired dream of the single-family or single home (even if more than the immediate family occupied it) but the status and economic value that went with it.  Those who made the major investment of their lives would be assured that there would be no arbitrary change in their neighbourhood without a legal process, no sudden change of scale next to them, no new disruptive use down the street, ideally nothing that would surprise them – or the banks from which they borrowed, or their insurer.  Zoning, in short, was a guarantee of continuity as well as what determined the use of their property and their neighbours.

One of the lesser concerns at that time was whether someone of a different race would move next door, regardless of the degree to which they were racist.  In the 1920s, one could assume that by the standards of today, everyone was racist – something that would change dramatically in Canada as the country as a whole went from being 96 percent ethnically white as late as 1971 to cities like Vancouver that became minority white by about 2010.  Canadians nonetheless had a lot of other ways to divide themselves.  Language of course, religion maybe, social class certainly, and property value especially, only the latter of which could be affected directly by zoning.

But many progressive advocates, Mayor Helps included, seem to have a stake in the racism narrative, and, influenced by American events, wish to rewrite our history for that purpose.  They’re not going to give it up for the sake of nuance, especially when they can use it to justify an action – “dismantling single family zoning” – which would otherwise be too politically dangerous.

If systemic racism is to be the filter through which city planning and zoning is now to be strained, then a warning.  We can see already (and certainly in America) how toxic that debate can become, how alienating and divisive.  When those who speak in favour of maintaining what they value – literally their home sweet home and the community of which it is a part – and are then accused of being racists by default if they defend the zoning that provides them continuity, it is one of the most damaging charges that can be wielded.  If they are humiliated into silence, resentment will build and extreme voices will rise to fill the void.  When the charge is implicitly used only against whites, it becomes the racism it claims to reject.  Every part of the civic discourse then starts to become infected, not for purposes of truth but for revenge.

Before we get there though, there’s a more pragmatic reason to not pursue overt elimination of all single-family zoning.  It’s just not necessary.  Economic self-interest will do a pretty good job, which, if combined with change that is ‘invisible, hidden and gentle’ (like secondary suites, duplexes, and small apartments that look rather like large houses), neighbourhoods can change incrementally and happily, even as they change demographically.  If zoning were essentially an instrument of white supremacy, it has done a lousy job.  And that’s because in our cities, it wasn’t.

 

There’s more in my piece that Mayor Helps referred to and this one on the Grand Bargain which explains why it’s not just homeowners who defend the zoning status quo.  And go ahead, quote away; give me little thrills.  But please do so correctly, even if you disagree.

 

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  1. I was relieved to read your reply to Victoria Mayor Helps’ single family zoning racism rant and her misquotes of your writing. The Missing Middle is a difficult enough planning concept to navigate without inserting wedge issues like racism and discrimination that are irrelevant in the Canadian zoning context. Your assessment of single family zoning and it’s gentle evolution makes sense.

  2. People like the Mayor of Victoria should take the time to read the historical documents. Bartholomew, for example, makes no mention of race, and explicitly states (page 432) that the “residential” areas of Vancouver could be either one family or two family depending on the wishes of the residents. There was no explicitly racial-exclusionary zoning anywhere in Vancouver that I have been able to discover – as an example, note First Shaughnessy, where the Japanese consul general moved to The Crescent in 1926. A few years earlier, produce-store owner Quan Gow and family bought a house at 147 West 7th in Mount Pleasant. Halford Wilson’s attempt to exclude Asian people from the 41st and Dunbar area was rejected by Council in 1941. Yes, people were racist, and numerous house titles had exclusionary clauses inserted into them by owners, but it’s only on the North Shore, most notoriously in the British Properties, where there was systemic exclusion on the basis of race in the zoning. Was there economic exclusion? Sure, just like there is now in the Coal Harbour area, and on the West Side of the city.

  3. I, too, was surprised by the Berkeley story of the racist origin of single family zoning and have spent much time researching it. The story is at best “truthy” not true, and many of the Berkeley facts and other historical facts have been conflated and twisted, mostly by the press, to simplify the story.

    Most news accounts cite other news accounts which ultimately rely (possibly soley) on “URBAN LAND DEVELOPERS AND THE ORIGINS OF ZONING LAWS: THE CASE OF BERKELEY, Marc A. Weiss”

    The most inflammatory part of Weiss is buried in a footnote. When I verified the footnote I found it contradicted the simplified facts of the Berkeley story in newspapers.

    From Weiss’ source: From Charles Henry Cheney. ” Districting Progress and Procedure in California.” Proceedings of the Ninth National Conference on City Planning 1917.”

    The first application of SFZ in Berkeley *was* in the Claremont neighborhood, that neighborhood had originally been subdivided by a property developer, McDuffie, using facially racist covenants not SFZ. When the neighborhood later petitioned for SFZ it did so after the covenants expired and the encroachment of two apartments, a private school, and two duplexes (“two-flats”) not a Chinese laundry or “negroe” dance hall. SFZ was granted and the non-conforming uses were grandfathered.

    The 2nd Petition had a motive to eliminate laundries, but it was *NOT* in a SFZ zone, it was an apartment zone (“Class V”). Here’s the story: ” … all its troubles traced back .. to an old construction camp and stable. Fumes and odors from it made the three adjoining houses impossible to rent to any but Japanese tenants, who operated a laundry in the houses. There also was one Chinese laundry on the next street … with consequent lowering of rents. We,.., recommended to the Council that the … camp and laundries must be eliminated and … petition be granted permitting flats and apartments …”

    District Petition 8 was a residential district alarmed at the possible location of the “negro dance hall” on a prominent corner and petitioned for Class V, permitting apartments, flats, and all kinds of residences. Surveys showed only single family residences and flats with 90% built.

    ***
    The historical distortion going on in debates now conflates “police-power, nuisance” style zoning ordinances (e.g. Baltimore, Richmond, etc) which are explicitly and facially racist (e.g. “blocks with a marjority of white owners cannot sell to negroe owners …” etc) with later Berkeley style zoning ordinances that are facially neutral, but in some ways emulate single family land forms that were once created using deeds and convenants that were facially racist.

    Facially racist zoning was eliminated in 1917, but facially racist convenants and deed restrictions actually lasted until 1948. If the legal control mechanism, zoning vs deed restrictions vs convenants” are racist then one might expect the call for the elimination of use of deed restrictions and convenants.

    On balance its not true that zoning, particularly single family zoning as we know it today, also called “Euclidean” zoning had primarily racial motivations. Even my account, which tries to clarify the facts about racism, leaves out the domination motivations of developers, customers, and truly functional and orderly city planning motivations that drove the evolution of zoning.

    It’s not about the tool. Have a housing policy debate by all means. Don’t let it get hijacked by this debate.

  4. Post
    Author

    Viewpoint received the following from Paul Collacchi of Redwood City, CA:

    “In 1916, the City of Berkeley, California implemented North America’s first single family zoning in the Elmwood neighbourhood. Although the language of the zoning itself was written without reference to race, the explicit purpose of the bylaw was to keep the neighbourhood white and to exclude Blacks and Asians . As urban planner Gordon Price writes, “Its intentions were nakedly segregationist. The idea was conceived largely as a tool for white homeowners to eject Asian laundries from an otherwise segregated neighborhood, and to stop a ‘negro dance hall’ from setting up shop on ‘a prominent corner’.”

    This is not factually true in several ways.

    The historical context is incorrect. One of the first zoning ordinances was Ordinance 9774 (1904) in Los Angeles which explicitly banned “laundry” and “bath house” uses from designated residential zones. The LA ordinance was upheld by the courts. If Berkeley wanted to create facially racist ordinances to ban Asians by proxy it certainly could have imitated LA or San Francisco, but Berkeley, was a then a suburb of San Francisco, with a population of 50,000. It had complex but localizable use incompatibilities and genuine planning motives. One was to separate, residential an industrial uses for the benefit of both. 90% of the residences for 50,000 people were single family. One survey put the number of ‘negros’ in the city at 247. There was no credible threat from black home ownership even if each black person owned a single family home.

    The simplified Berkeley facts are themselves incorrect. The Ordinance did not impose Zoning districts it allowed neighborhoods and businesses to petition for them. The petition from the neighborhood to exclude Chinese Laundries and pre-empt a ‘negro dance hall’ were made in different petitions. Neither petition was the made by the Elmwood neighborhood or any other neighborhood petition requesting a District I (single family) designation. In fact, the cited petitions with “nakedly segregationist” motivations were made by neighborhoods requesting multi-family designations.

    If the logic is to engage in a symbolic act of racial apology a la Berkeley then what should be cancelled are zoning Districts comparable to Berkeley zoning District 5 which allowed apartments, duplexes, and single family homes. Or convenants and deed restrictions, both of which contained facially racist language and both of which were used in Berkeley. Facially racist covenants were not struck down until 1948.

    Every major newspaper, including NPR, either misread this paragraph in “Urban Land Developers and the Origins of Zoning Laws: The Case of
    Berkeley” by Marc A. Weiss, or relied upon another newspaper that misread the paragraph.

    The first zoned district created in Berkeley was the single-family residence restriction applied to Elmwood Park. Other zoning actions by the City Council in response to property owner petitions included one which required two Japanese laundries, one Chinese laundry, and a six-horse stable to vacate an older apartment area in the center of town, and another that created a . restricted residence district in order to prevent a “negro dance hall” from locating “on a prominent corner.”36

    Mistaken researchers either assumed that the “other” zoning actions were also made for Elmwood Park, or that the petition “… that created a restricted residential district in order to prevent a “negro dance hall” was made to create a single family district. It wasn’t. It was made to create a multi-family district.

    For serious researchers, each of the first eight petitions made under the new zoning law are covered in extensive detail in the source 36 cited by Weiss, a presentation made by city planner Charles Cheney to the Californian Conference on City Planning. In particular, the petition that banned the stable and laundries makes a plausible case that the uses were abandoned for cause and not as a proxy for race.

    Those who would cancel single family zoning as an act of symbolism should tear down the right statue or do better historical research.

    Sincerely,

    Paul Collacchi
    Redwood City, CA

    “In 1916, the City of Berkeley, California implemented North America’s first single family zoning in the Elmwood neighbourhood. Although the language of the zoning itself was written without reference to race, the explicit purpose of the bylaw was to keep the neighbourhood white and to exclude Blacks and Asians . As urban planner Gordon Price writes, “Its intentions were nakedly segregationist. The idea was conceived largely as a tool for white homeowners to eject Asian laundries from an otherwise segregated neighborhood, and to stop a ‘negro dance hall’ from setting up shop on ‘a prominent corner’.”

    This is not factually true in several ways.

    The historical context is incorrect. One of the first zoning ordinances was Ordinance 9774 (1904) in Los Angeles which explicitly banned “laundry” and “bath house” uses from designated residential zones. The LA ordinance was upheld by the courts. If Berkeley wanted to create facially racist ordinances to ban Asians by proxy it certainly could have imitated LA or San Francisco, but Berkeley, was a then a suburb of San Francisco, with a population of 50,000. It had complex but localizable use incompatibilities and genuine planning motives. One was to separate, residential an industrial uses for the benefit of both. 90% of the residences for 50,000 people were single family. One survey put the number of ‘negros’ in the city at 247. There was no credible threat from black home ownership even if each black person owned a single family home.

    The simplified Berkeley facts are themselves incorrect. The Ordinance did not impose Zoning districts it allowed neighborhoods and businesses to petition for them. The petition from the neighborhood to exclude Chinese Laundries and pre-empt a ‘negro dance hall’ were made in different petitions. Neither petition was the made by the Elmwood neighborhood or any other neighborhood petition requesting a District I (single family) designation. In fact, the cited petitions with “nakedly segregationist” motivations were made by neighborhoods requesting multi-family designations.

    If the logic is to engage in a symbolic act of racial apology a la Berkeley then what should be cancelled are zoning Districts comparable to Berkeley zoning District 5 which allowed apartments, duplexes, and single family homes. Or convenants and deed restrictions, both of which contained facially racist language and both of which were used in Berkeley. Facially racist covenants were not struck down until 1948.

    Every major newspaper, including NPR, either misread this paragraph in “Urban Land Developers and the Origins of Zoning Laws: The Case of
    Berkeley” by Marc A. Weiss, or relied upon another newspaper that misread the paragraph.

    The first zoned district created in Berkeley was the single-family residence restriction applied to Elmwood Park. Other zoning actions by the City Council in response to property owner petitions included one which required two Japanese laundries, one Chinese laundry, and a six-horse stable to vacate an older apartment area in the center of town, and another that created a . restricted residence district in order to prevent a “negro dance hall” from locating “on a prominent corner.”36

    Mistaken researchers either assumed that the “other” zoning actions were also made for Elmwood Park, or that the petition “… that created a restricted residential district in order to prevent a “negro dance hall” was made to create a single family district. It wasn’t. It was made to create a multi-family district.

    For serious researchers, each of the first eight petitions made under the new zoning law are covered in extensive detail in the source 36 cited by Weiss, a presentation made by city planner Charles Cheney to the Californian Conference on City Planning. In particular, the petition that banned the stable and laundries makes a plausible case that the uses were abandoned for cause and not as a proxy for race.

    Those who would cancel single family zoning as an act of symbolism should tear down the right statue or do better historical research.

    Sincerely,

    Paul Collacchi
    Redwood City, CA

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