Exclusionary Zoning

1 Exclusionary Zoning

This lesson delves into the history of exclusionary zoning in the United States, which has resulted in racial and economic segregation in various urban areas. It explores the practice of using zoning laws to restrict affordable housing, apartments, and public services in certain areas, with minimum lot sizes being a common requirement. The article examines the role of city planners and land-use policy in perpetuating exclusionary zoning practices. 


  1. Learn about Exclusionary Zoning practices
  2. Recognize that Exclusionary Zoning continues today



Key Takeaway:

  • Zoning in America has a history of racial segregation and economic exclusivity, perpetuating unequal access to public services and quality of life metrics.
  • Federal housing policy has played a role in perpetuating segregation through discriminatory practices like redlining, and exclusionary zoning continues to be used to keep low-income individuals and people of color out of affluent neighborhoods.
  • Reforming land-use regulation to scrap zoning and replace it with more equitable approaches, such as housing affordability and community ownership, is necessary to achieve a more just and equal society.

Zoning and segregation in America

Zoning regulations in the United States have played a crucial role in perpetuating racial segregation. These regulations have been used to restrict certain groups of people from accessing particular neighborhoods and public spaces, resulting in systemic discrimination and inequality. Additionally, these regulations have been used to limit the development of affordable housing in certain areas, leading to further economic disparities. The history of exclusionary zoning in America highlights the need for more equitable land-use regulation and urban planning policies.

Exclusionary zoning, a practice to limit the usage of lands by race and economic status, has been prevalent in the United States since the 1920s. Under this practice, areas were designated as either industrial or residential, and each area had distinct characteristics such as minimum lot sizes, setback requirements, height restrictions, and specific land uses. These regulations led to segregated neighborhoods where minorities were excluded from affluent, white areas. 

The history of zoning and racial segregation

The history of zoning and racial segregation is deeply embedded and interconnected with American urbanization processes. In many instances, city officials and developers used exclusionary zoning mechanisms to regulate housing opportunities for minorities through redlining practices We’ll discuss more in the Housing Module that prevented nonwhite communities from obtaining mortgages from banking institutions. As a result, the Black and other minority populations were confined to substandard housing in overcrowded neighborhoods with inadequate city infrastructure.

Black and white photo of row houses with hand drawn x above many of the houses.  In the top left corner it says "Look!".  Below the photo it says "LOOK at the Homes NOW! An entire block ruined by negro invasion.  Every house marked "X" now occupied by negroes. ACTUAL PHOTOGRAPH of 4300 WEST BELLE PLACE. SAVE YOUR HOME! VOTE FOR SEGREGATION!"

Image: A flyer from the 1916 St. Louis campaign to adopt racial zoning.

These policies were first established in the early 20th century when white suburbanites implemented zoning codes that prohibited people of color and low-income residents from living in their neighborhoods. The Supreme Court upheld these exclusionary laws until 1917 in Buchanan v. Warley when they were ruled unconstitutional.

Despite the Supreme Court ruling, the segregation when federal policies started promoting suburban growth and white flight in the mid-20th century. Federal agencies provided financial incentives to developers who constructed single-family homes in homogeneous neighborhoods while excluding Black and other minority populations from being able to move into the area.  

Because zoning could not explicitly exclude populations by race, other zoning was put into place to ensure lower-income people could not afford to live in affluent areas.  This was done by setting minimum lot sizes Minimum lot size provisions state that a certain type of home or dwelling can only be built on a certain size property, minimum square footage Buildings must be larger than a designated minimum square footage requirements, and other restrictions that make it difficult or impossible to build affordable housing. These restrictions can be used to prevent the construction of apartment buildings, townhouses, and other types of multi-family housing that are more affordable than single-family homes.

A landmark case on exclusionary zoning policy is NAACP. v. Mount Laurel Township, which ruled that municipalities cannot use zoning ordinances to exclude low- and moderate-income housing.  This lawsuit resulted in the “Mount Laurel Doctrine,” which established that all municipalities are required to provide their “fair share” of affordable housing. This landmark decision has since been adopted by multiple states as a means of promoting more equitable land-use policies.

The current state of exclusionary zoning in America

The present condition of exclusionary zoning practices in the United States reveals the persistence of discriminatory tactics to maintain racial segregation in housing and neighborhoods. Many cities continue to impose exclusionary zoning rules, making it difficult for low-income families to buy or rent homes in areas with better schools and job opportunities. These practices have led to the concentration of poverty and segregation in areas with substandard living conditions.

One story that highlights the consequences of exclusionary zoning is that of the city of Dallas, which implemented a zoning rule in 1924 that banned the construction of homes within 500 feet of another race. This rule resulted in the creation of segregated neighborhoods that have persisted to this day. Over time, the city’s African American neighborhoods became neglected and received little investment compared to predominantly white areas.

Side by side map of Dallas.  On the right shows the segregation in the city.  To the north is white, east and west is Hispanic, southeast is Black.  The map on the right shows the communities that do not have access to internet.  It is located in the southeast.

Image: Map on the left shows current Dallas segregation. And the map on the right shows which neighborhoods are lacking internet services

Overall, exclusionary zoning remains a critical challenge to achieving fair and equitable access to housing in America. While some progress has been made, there is still much work to be done to promote more inclusive zoning rules and affordable housing options.

Read the statement put out by the White House about Exclusionary Zoning.

Zoning and economic exclusivity in affluent neighborhoods

The allocation of land use through restrictive zoning laws tends to separate economic classes within wealthy neighborhoods. Such practices contribute to a lack of social diversity, limiting opportunities and creating economic disparities.

Wealthy neighborhoods utilize land-use policies that exclude low-income or working-class families from the area, thus exacerbating economic segregation. Restrictive zoning laws on property size and development type (e.g., minimum lot sizes) often target families from lower socio-economic backgrounds who cannot afford the high costs associated with larger plots of land. As such, it creates an apparent wall around affluent areas that hinders access to quality schools, healthcare facilities, and other necessary resources.

It is prevalent for local municipalities that endorse exclusionary zoning practices as they attempt to maintain housing values and prevent community changes. While there are efforts by some communities to reduce economic segregation by permitting affordable housing developments within affluent areas, some communities have resisted these initiatives. These actions further discourage the possibility of building diverse communities where all socio-economic classes coexist harmoniously.

In many cities across the United States, renters are barred from certain neighborhoods through zoning laws that only permit  homeowners within their boundaries. Such exclusionary zoning causes low-income residents to live in areas with fewer resources and amenities than their more affluent counterparts. This practice translates into a concentration of poverty that contributes to the cycle of under-resourced urban areas.

To ensure economic diversity within our communities, policymakers are re-examining existing zoning regulations in specific areas that promote discriminatory practices. Some cities have implemented inclusionary zoning policies that require developers to set aside a certain percentage of affordable housing units in new developments. 


However, these policies face pushback from developers and some communities who argue that they will decrease property values and attract crime.



As we look back at the history of exclusionary zoning in the United States, we can discern a clear pattern of discriminatory practices that have sought to segregate various communities. The prevalence of such practices has had a lasting impact on society, creating significant disparities in wealth, education, and access to resources. Despite some efforts to reform zoning laws and promote integration, the legacy of exclusionary zoning remains a challenge that requires ongoing attention and advocacy.

One key aspect of this history is the role of local governments in shaping zoning policies. From the early 20th century to the present day, many municipalities have enacted zoning laws that effectively lock out certain groups of residents, particularly people of color and those with lower incomes. These laws often use subtle language and non-explicit criteria to achieve their exclusionary goals, such as requiring large lot sizes or restricting multi-family housing.

Another important factor is the way in which zoning policies intersect with broader social and economic trends. For example, the rise of suburbanization and the decline of industrial jobs in urban centers have contributed to patterns of racial and economic segregation that persist to this day. Zoning laws have played a role in reinforcing these trends, even as some communities have pushed back against them.

Despite the challenges posed by exclusionary zoning, there are strategies that can be used to promote greater fairness and inclusivity in local planning processes. One pro tip for advocates and policymakers is to focus on promoting sustainable, mixed-income communities that provide a range of housing options and amenities We’ll discuss more in the Housing Module. By working together across various sectors and engaging with residents who are directly impacted by zoning policies, it is possible to create more vibrant, equitable communities that reflect the best values of our society.

Five Facts About History of Exclusionary Zoning in the United States:

  • ✅ Exclusionary zoning has been used to keep certain groups of people, such as minorities and low-income families, out of certain neighborhoods and communities in the US. 
  • ✅ Exclusionary zoning originated in the early 20th century as a way for wealthy communities to maintain their exclusivity and property values.
  • ✅ Exclusionary zoning is often achieved through the use of minimum lot sizes, high home values, and prohibitions on certain types of housing, such as apartments and mobile homes. 
  • ✅ Exclusionary zoning has been challenged in court numerous times, with some cases resulting in the striking down of certain zoning laws and practices as unconstitutional.
  • ✅ There have been efforts to promote more inclusive zoning practices, such as by incentivizing the construction of affordable housing and promoting mixed-use developments. 

FAQs about History Of Exclusionary Zoning In The United States

What is the history of exclusionary zoning in the United States?

Exclusionary zoning began in the early 20th century as a way for more affluent neighborhoods to keep out undesirable residents, specifically minorities and the poor. This zoning practice became widespread in the 1920s and 1930s and has continued to impact the makeup of American neighborhoods ever since.

How did exclusionary zoning impact minority communities in the United States?

Exclusionary zoning created a system of segregation in which minority individuals and families were denied access to areas with better resources, including higher-paying jobs, better schools, and safer neighborhoods. This perpetuated a cycle of poverty, unequal access to opportunities, and discrimination against marginalized communities.

Has exclusionary zoning ever been challenged in court?

Yes, exclusionary zoning practices have been challenged in court numerous times, with varying degrees of success. In some cases, courts have struck down exclusionary zoning ordinances as unconstitutional and in violation of the Fair Housing Act.

What is the impact of exclusionary zoning on affordable housing in the United States?

Exclusionary zoning has made it difficult for individuals and families in the United States to find affordable housing in high-opportunity areas. By restricting the development of certain types of housing, such as multifamily units or subsidized housing, exclusionary zoning limits the availability of affordable housing in desirable neighborhoods, perpetuating segregation and inequality.

What are some alternatives to exclusionary zoning?

Alternatives to exclusionary zoning include inclusionary zoning, which requires that a certain percentage of newly constructed housing units in a given area be affordable to lower-income residents, and upzoning, which allows for increased density in certain areas to allow for more affordable housing options. Additionally, some cities have implemented housing voucher programs that provide financial assistance to low-income individuals and families in accessing housing in higher-opportunity neighborhoods.

What is being done to address exclusionary zoning in the United States today?

There are a number of initiatives underway at the local, state, and national level to address exclusionary zoning in the United States. These include legislative efforts to promote inclusionary zoning and upzoning, as well as funding for affordable housing initiatives and efforts to combat housing discrimination and segregation.

Quick Check

Who was an important person in the NAACP. v. Mount Laurel Township case?

Enter Answer A Here

William Warley

Enter Answer B Here

Charles H. Buchanan


Ethel Lawrence

Check Answer




Leave a Comment