Tearing Down Invisible Walls

Ending Economic Housing Discrimination

Janet Williams, a Black single mother of two, works at a community health center and frequently faces a tough dilemma when her meager paycheck arrives. On several occasions, it’s gotten “to the point,” she says, “where I had to choose to pay for groceries, pay rent, pay gas and electric or ... pay childcare.”1 Sometimes her hand is forced. “I’ve had times where, if I didn’t pay my rent, the next day I was going to have eviction filed.” On those occasions, “the whole check goes to my rent,” and while she waits for the next paycheck to arrive, she may have to tell her kids, we will “not have hot water and not have the electric working.”2

With two kids and loans from college, Williams says her job as a community mental health worker and substance abuse case manager for a nonprofit doesn’t provide enough. Williams did what society asked her to do by working hard and getting a college degree. But she took on $70,000 of debt in the process. Her income is just above what would qualify for food stamps, she says, so “it’s on me to put groceries in the house.” She hates owing money, so when she gets a windfall, like a COVID-19 stimulus check, she uses it to pay down her credit card debt. But she’s frustrated that high housing costs mean she is constrained to a neighborhood where her kids don’t feel safe. “I can’t tell you how many times we’ve seen the police outside of our window,” she says. To avoid dangers in the neighborhood, she says, “we pretty much keep to ourselves.”3

Why Is Housing So Expensive?

The solution, when many people think about Williams’s dilemma, involves finding ways to raise wages or increase government housing subsidies. Both approaches make good sense and are necessary.4 But equally, perhaps more, important is doing something about the “supply side” and addressing the question: What is driving housing prices so high? To what degree do hidden government policies, such as exclusionary zoning, help create the housing affordability crisis in the first place?

There is near-universal agreement among economists that since the 1970s, the rise of zoning laws that forbid the construction of multifamily housing has prevented housing supply from keeping up with demand. The 1970s were a turning point, in part because they were an era of growing inflation, and home equity became an increasing proportion of the financial portfolio of most families.5 As homeownership was transformed from a consumer commodity to an investment, homeowners became increasingly anxious about how new development might affect their property values—and demanded new zoning constraints.6

Government policies that forbade multifamily housing generated and continue to perpetuate a housing shortage. If homeowners were allowed to subdivide their houses into duplexes or triplexes, or if more multifamily housing could be built near transit, for example, a community would be able to increase the supply of housing available. But single-family exclusive zoning prohibits that possibility.

When government zoning policies curtail housing supply in a metropolitan area and increase competition for housing, including in trailer parks, rents rise and millions of Americans suffer. Researchers found that, “Nearly 4 in 10 nonelderly adults reported that in 2018, their families had trouble paying or were unable to pay for housing, utilities, food, or medical care at some point during the year.”7 And a 2021 report, vividly titled The Rent Eats First, found that “nearly a quarter of renter households were spending more than half of their incomes on rent each month, leaving little income to cover other expenses.”8 Making housing more affordable, one author writes, “is literally a lifesaver. People who spend less on housing costs have more money to spend on food and medical care.”9

Does Your Neighborhood Really Matter?

Where you live in the United States matters greatly to your quality of life and the life chances of your children. It determines your odds of being safe, of getting a job, of accessing good healthcare, and of enrolling your children in strong public schools. Poor families who live (often because of government zoning) in low-opportunity neighborhoods with struggling schools and high crime rates face very different odds than poor families who live in higher-opportunity neighborhoods where schools are stronger and streets safer.10

Adults in high-poverty neighborhoods are often cut off from transportation and jobs, which can have a crushing effect on families. If a parent does not live in a neighborhood with good transportation options, commutes can become hours long. That can mean less time to help nurture a child when home after work.11 Miss one bus exchange, and a worker can get fired for showing up late, with devastating effects on the whole family.

Families in poor neighborhoods are also often cut off from healthcare. To take one example, Bethesda, Maryland, an affluent suburb of Washington, DC, has one pediatrician for every 400 children, compared to poor and predominantly Black Southeast DC, where there is one pediatrician for every 3,700 children.12 Poor neighborhoods are also more likely to have environmental hazards such as lead paint that can lead to lower IQ for children.13

Overall, the cumulative lifetime impact of neighborhood on opportunity can be enormous. A 2014 study estimated that “the lifetime household income would be $910,000 greater if people born into the bottom quartile of the neighborhood income distribution had instead grown up in a top-quartile neighborhood.”14

An Economic Fair Housing Act

In August 2017, I proposed the idea of creating an Economic Fair Housing Act to make it illegal for government zoning to discriminate on the basis of income, just as the 1968 Fair Housing Act makes it illegal for parties to discriminate on the basis of race.15 It is time, a century after the Supreme Court struck down racial zoning, to outlaw unjustified economically discriminatory zoning.16 Although the private housing market would continue to function based on a consumer’s ability to pay, the idea behind an Economic Fair Housing Act is that local governments (and homeowners’ associations) should not themselves engage in economic discrimination by erecting artificial barriers to working-class people who wish to move with their families to higher-opportunity neighborhoods.17 When local governments adopt exclusionary zoning laws, which telegraph that less-advantaged families are unwelcome in a community, that government-sponsored income discrimination should be illegal.

Imagine how life would be different if we began to tear down the invisible walls that local governments erect to keep people apart. Imagine if the supply of housing weren’t artificially capped by zoning rules, and people like Janet Williams didn’t have to worry so much about whether to pay rent or buy groceries. If more affordable housing prices meant less homelessness. If people who wanted to move to coastal areas for a wage boost could do so because housing prices were not astronomical. If workers had less stress because they didn’t have to live on the outskirts of metropolitan areas and take two buses to work. If housing were built where people needed it so that auto emissions declined and we had fewer severe weather events.

Imagine if, because walls were coming down, metropolitan areas were less racially segregated and people met more neighbors who came from different racial and ethnic backgrounds—and as a result (according to 94 percent of studies) this interracial contact resulted in less racial prejudice.18 Imagine also what life would be like if more African Americans experienced the higher employment and higher wages that result from reduced segregation.

Imagine a United States in which low-wage workers of all races had the legal tools to fight government-sponsored economic discrimination in zoning; if people could fight back against humiliating policies that tell them they are unwanted in entire communities.

The government-sponsored walls that divide us do enormous harm—blunting opportunity, making housing unaffordable, damaging the environment, segregating us by race and class, and doing significant injury to our fragile democracy. It is time to recognize the walls that separate us, and then proceed to tear them down.

Richard D. Kahlenberg, JD, a researcher and writer on education and housing policy, is a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute and a nonresident scholar at Georgetown University’s McCourt School of Public Policy. Previously, he was a senior fellow at The Century Foundation. This article has been excerpted from Excluded: How Snob Zoning, NIMBYism, and Class Bias Build the Walls We Don’t See by Richard D. Kahlenberg. Copyright © 2023. Available from PublicAffairs, an imprint of Perseus Books, LLC, a subsidiary of Hachette Book Group, Inc.


1. J. Williams (pseudonym), interview by Michelle Burris and Richard Kahlenberg, January 27, 2021, 2.

2. Williams (pseudonym), interview by Burris and Kahlenberg, March 30, 2020.

3. Williams (pseudonym), interview by Burris and Kahlenberg, March 30, 2020, 8.

4. Wages need to be higher in America. See, for example, R. Kahlenberg and M. Marvit, Why Labor Organizing Should Be a Civil Right (New York: Century Foundation Press, 2012).

5. W. Fischel, Zoning Rules!: The Economics of Land Use Regulations (Cambridge, MA: Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, 2015), 212.

6. Fischel, Zoning Rules!, xii, 163, 201, 212–14.

7. M. Karpman, S. Zuckerman, and D. Gonzalez, “Despite Labor Market Gains in 2018, There Were Only Modest Improvements in Families’ Ability to Meet Basic Needs,” Urban Institute, May 13, 2019, urban.org/research/publication/despite-labor-market-gains-2018-there-were-only-modest-improvements-families-ability-meet-basic-needs.

8. W. Airgood-Obrycki, A. Hermann, and S. Wedeen, “The Rent Eats First: Rental Housing Unaffordability in the US,” Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies, January 13, 2021, jchs.harvard.edu/research-areas/working-papers/rent-eats-first-rental-housing-unaffordability-us.

9. D. Lind, Brave New Home: Our Future in Smarter, Simpler, Happier Housing (New York: Bold Type Books, 2020), 180.

10. D. Massey and N. Denton, American Apartheid: Segregation and the Making of the Underclass (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998), 149, 169, 178–79.

11. S. Ifill, “FHEO Speaker Series: The Problem We All Live With: Residential Segregation and Urban Policy,” YouTube video, 1:01:12, HUDchannel, June 5, 2015, youtube.com/watch?v=3dB2vGWmIvg.

12. See C. Kubrin and G. Squires, “Privileged Places: Race, Opportunity and Uneven Development in Urban America,” NHI Shelterforce Online 147 (Fall 2006): academia.edu/2769587/Privileged_Places_Race_Uneven_Development_and_the_Geography_of_Opportunity_in_Urban_America.

13. J. Harris and B. Appelbaum, “Blue States, You’re the Problem: Why Do States with Democratic Majorities Fail to Live Up to Their Values?,” New York Times video, 14:20, November 9, 2021 nytimes.com/video/opinion/100000007886969/democrats-blue-states-legislation.html.

14. D. Massey and J. Rugh, “The Intersections of Race and Class: Zoning, Affordable Housing, and Segregation in US Metropolitan Areas,” in The Fight for Fair Housing: Causes, Consequences, and Future Implications of the 1968 Federal Fair Housing Act, ed. G. Squires (New York: Routledge, 2018), 246–47 (summarizing J. Rothwell and D. Massey, “Geographic Effects on Intergenerational Income Mobility,” Economic Geography 91, no. 1 [2014]: 83–106).

15. See R. Kahlenberg, “An Economic Fair Housing Act,” Century Foundation, August 3, 2017, tcf.org/content/report/economic-fair-housing-act.

16. R. Kahlenberg, “The Walls We Won’t Tear Down,” New York Times, August 3, 2017, nytimes.com/2017/08/03/opinion/sunday/zoning-laws-segregation-income.html.

17. Kahlenberg, “An Economic Fair Housing Act”; see also Equitable Housing Institute, “Economic Fair Housing Act of 2021: Partial Draft Bill and Comments,” November 30, 2020, equitablehousing.org/images/PDFs/PDFs--2018-/EHI_Economic_FHA_of_2021_draft-rev_11-30-20.pdf, 12. (“This section does not independently require the provision of housing at public expense.”)

18. L. Tropp, Benefits of Contact Between Racial and Ethnic Groups: A Summary of Research Findings; Testimony in Support of New York City School Diversity Bills; Hearings on Diversity in New York City Schools (Washington, DC: National Coalition on School Diversity, December 11, 2014), school-diversity.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/Tropp-written-testimony-for-New-York-City-Schools-12-2014.pdf, 1–2. (Of 515 studies from 38 countries between the 1940s and 2000, 94 percent found greater interracial contact is associated with reduced racial prejudice.)

[illustrations: Michela Buttignol]

AFT Health Care, Fall 2023