Racial inequities and the Biden infrastructure plan

By Elaine Gross

President Biden’s proposed $2 trillion infrastructure plan is remarkable for its ambition and breadth and for taking significant steps to address historic racial inequities. The president deserves great credit for recognizing, confronting and trying to tackle those inequities. As the plan evolves, it should focus further on how it will reduce racial segregation, the foundation of the inequities, and not just fix up the segregated communities that are so prominent in our nation’s landscape.

The Biden plan includes $20 billion for a new program to reconnect neighborhoods cut off by historic transportation investment inequities. That will rightly undo past harm.

The plan recognizes that people of color and low-income people are more likely to live in areas most vulnerable to flooding and other climate-change-related weather events, and it targets investments to support infrastructure there. It invests $100 billion to upgrade and build new public schools, noting that “we can’t close the opportunity gap if low-income kids go to school in buildings that undermine health and safety.”

In both cases, assisting people living in segregated communities is a worthy priority, and much should be done in the short term. But the core problem that requires addressing is the historic and structural discrimination and segregation that fuel inequity. Should these populations have to remain in the flood areas? Shouldn’t they have access to other communities, too?

In some instances, fixing up segregated schools is long overdue. But what else is happening to encourage integrated schools? New school buildings can provide important incentives to encourage crossing of neighborhood borders.

The infrastructure plan highlights the severe shortage of affordable housing in America, and invests $213 billion to produce, preserve and retrofit more than two million affordable and sustainable places to live. It pairs this investment with an innovative new approach to eliminate state and local exclusionary zoning laws, which play a vital role in housing discrimination and thus residential and school segregation.

“For decades,” the plan states, “exclusionary zoning laws — like minimum lot sizes, mandatory parking requirements and prohibitions on multifamily housing — have inflated housing and construction costs and locked families out of areas with more opportunities. President Biden is calling on Congress to enact an innovative, new competitive grant program that awards flexible and attractive funding to jurisdictions that take concrete steps to eliminate such needless barriers to producing affordable housing.”

Exclusionary zoning often seems superficially innocuous. “It’s about density, not racism,” goes the argument. But its impact is to reduce options for more affordable housing and, therefore, a more diverse population. In some cases, it is specifically designed to give preference to those who already live in largely white communities.

Two examples in New York highlight the problem. In 2014, the federal government sued the Town of Oyster Bay over two housing programs created to develop below-market-rate housing for first-time homeowners and older adults. The programs discriminated against African-Americans, because the initiatives gave preference to residents of the predominantly white town. Very few African-Americans (3 percent of residents) lived in the town at the time, and fewer than 1 percent of Black families living there were eligible for the program. Income-eligible Black residents nearby were blocked from participating. That is exclusionary zoning — and it is, in effect, racist.

In a separate case in Westchester County, a False Claims Act lawsuit by the Anti-Discrimination Center targeted exclusionary zoning. It resulted in Westchester settling the case and entering into a 2009 consent decree. As the center describes the outcome, “Westchester was prohibited from ignoring either the residential racial segregation that continues to plague it, or the municipal resistance to affordable housing development that stymies the possibility of changing those patterns.”

The impact of exclusionary zoning is amplified by the fact that it does not exist in a vacuum. It is one aspect of a broader pattern of local control that derives from home rule — specific powers delegated by states to local municipalities. Those powers transfer to localities control of land use, public services and community benefits. In the context of predominantly white communities, local control provides the power to exclude. I have explored that further in a separate essay on “Housing Discrimination and Local Control.”

Biden is right to address racial inequities with his infrastructure plan. He deserves praise for taking an innovative approach to tackling exclusionary zoning. What is needed now is a closer look at whether the plan overall does enough to dismantle racial segregation and the disparities it produces. It is a difficult balance. Keep what we have and make it better, or implement real transformation.

Elaine Gross is president of ERASE Racism, the Long Island-based regional civil rights organization.