Katherine Kersten’s overwrought case against regional planning (“Do we really want to live like this,” Sept. 27) amounts to little more than a defense of ongoing discrimination and segregation in housing.

Minnesota policymakers of every political stripe once endorsed the idea that government power can’t be used to create closed communities for the affluent and effectively kick out the working class and racial minorities. It is this belief that led the state’s entire Republican congressional delegation to support the Fair Housing Act, which forbids exclusionary zoning and requires state and local governments to reduce segregation. A Republican state Legislature, knowing that cities are stronger when they coordinate to solve regional problems, created the Metropolitan Council and empowered it to rewrite exclusionary comprehensive plans. Most important, in the early 1970s the Twin Cities implemented the nation’s best fair-share housing plan, using an approach to regional planning pioneered during the Nixon administration by George Romney (yes — Mitt’s dad). Disaster did not ensue.

These ideas were neither liberal nor conservative, but pragmatic. Fair-share proponents knew that exclusionary zoning was a form of government interference in the private market. They knew that an open and nondiscriminatory housing market would thrive and was ultimately preferable to providing endless subsidy to struggling, permanently segregated neighborhoods. In the 1960s, many Republicans (like Romney) recognized that rigid housing segregation was not a feature of the free market but a market distortion. Segregation undermines individual choice by creating geographic barriers to opportunity. The nation’s most vibrant economies are racially and economically integrated regions; on the other end of the spectrum are Detroit and St. Louis.

But the Met Council stopped enforcing its fair share plan in the mid-1980s. Almost immediately, a number of very wealthy suburbs closed their gates, rezoning land that had been intended for affordable housing. Even while most middle-class suburbs have continued to provide their fair share and have become more racially and economically diverse, the most exclusive communities have remained largely white and affluent. Simultaneously, the region’s racial disparities grew, soon eclipsing those in peer cities like Seattle and Portland. The council’s recently adopted Housing Policy Plan only formalizes this do-nothing strategy. It does not reinstitute the abandoned fair-share plan.

Kersten is untroubled that many high-opportunity suburbs continue their exclusionary practices. She describes these cities as a reward reserved for society’s hardest-working members — providing housing in the suburbs for disadvantaged groups would “sever the tie between housing and work.” And she says that minority citizens will eventually find their way into these cities anyway, as part of an unspecified “natural process.”

This is a vision disconnected from the hard facts of housing discrimination. In Kersten’s view, families of color must have simply been too lazy to have earned access to privileged spaces. In reality, more than 50 years of experience tells us that the doors of these places are barred to minorities and lower-income families by a pair of invisible gatekeepers: private-market discrimination and exclusionary government policy.

Research continues to show that families of color in the Twin Cities face extraordinary discrimination in the housing market. Real-estate agents regularly steer minority families toward highly diverse cities such as Brooklyn Park while directing white families with the same means toward much whiter communities like Minnetonka. In the Twin Cities, a white household with an income of $40,000 is more likely to get a prime-rate loan than is a black household earning $157,000.

Local government also plays a role: The most affluent suburbs often use their zoning powers to bar the construction of anything but expensive houses on expansive lots, effectively banning cheaper housing from their borders. (Confusingly, Kersten grouses about construction safety codes as government overreach but has nothing but sympathy for cities’ use of the zoning code to dictate the allowable uses of private land.)

A terrible irony is embedded in Kersten’s polemic. Her preference — that cities be given a free hand to barricade themselves against low-income families and residents of color — has been the default approach to regional planning in the Twin Cities for nearly 30 years. The Met Council’s new plan changes little. If Kersten would like to preserve the segregated, unequal status quo, she should be pleased: Without significant revisions to the plan, the status quo will surely continue.

There is a better way. Sensible fair-share planning has worked before and can work again. To beat back inequality and boost the region’s economy, Minnesotans should reject an outdated and unworkable model of American society, in which exclusive suburbs act as enclaves of privilege and are by design held forever out of reach of most citizens.

 

Myron Orfield is a professor of Law at the University of Minnesota. Will Stancil is a research fellow at the university’s Institute on Metropolitan Opportunity.