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Study: Cuyahoga County Zoning Increases Housing Inequality, Segregation

The Fair Housing Center for Rights and Research study examined zoning ordinances in all but one of the municipalities and townships in Cuyahoga County. [Nick Castele / ideastream]
A row of houses in Cuyahoga County.

Zoning practices around Cuyahoga County are contributing to housing inequality and racial segregation, according to a study by the nonprofit advocacy group Fair Housing Center for Rights and Research.

The analysis of zoning ordinances in all but one of the county’s municipalities and townships found cities with a larger white population and higher average income often had more single-family homes.

That prices out people of color and low-income residents who typically rely on rentals, said Senior Research Associate Michael Lepley, sending them to poorer neighborhoods with fewer resources.

“Zoning creates a power structure, and that’s intentional,” Lepley said. “And the power structure then uses zoning to perpetuate itself to its own material benefit.”

Eleven communities don’t allow rental units at all: Bentleyville, Bratenahl, Brooklyn Heights, Chagrin Falls Township, Gates Mills, Glenwillow, Highland Heights, Hunting Valley, Independence, Moreland Hills and Walton Hills.

Fifty-eight percent of the county is zoned for single-family homes, Lepley said. Those homes also take up roughly a quarter of the land that allows for apartments or multifamily buildings. Multifamily homes and apartment complexes are condensed primarily in the City of Cleveland and eastern suburbs, with the exception of Lakewood, which is primarily multifamily but a majority white.

Multifamily housing units have become a stand-in for things wealthy, majority-white neighborhoods are hoping to avoid, Lepley said.

“We’ve understood from a historical perspective that this language is coded to mean people of color and to mean poor people,” Lepley said.

The reliance on single-family homes gives homeowners disproportionate power in determining the municipal political landscape and area development, Lepley said, by focusing on property values. Neighborhoods will rally against perceived threats to those values, Lepley said, including multi-family housing.

“It’s about controlling access to goods and services, and it’s about excluding specific people from goods and services and from participating in the economy of the region,” Lepley said.

And the same zoning policies often restrict industrial districts to the outer edges, Lepley said, moving them away from working-class residents who live in the rental units primarily confined to Cleveland.

“The industrial districts are moving outwards, but the housing for the people who need those jobs isn’t,” Lepley said.

The zoning practices do have benefits for each city, Lepley said. By limiting the housing to single-family homes, he said, the tax base increases and more money makes its way into the local government. Because of that, Lepley said, the cities are unlikely to change the policies on their own.

The study lists a few options for addressing the zoning inequalities, including legislation at the state level to remove a municipality’s ability to ban a certain kind of zoning or housing.

“This isn’t a city-by-city problem, this is a regional problem,” Lepley said. “Municipalities, they receive the prerogative to zone from the state, which enables legislation.”

The study also recommends federal and state entities halt funding for development and improvements to schools, roads and other public properties in districts with exclusionary zoning practices. Those improvements continue to add to the property values and tax base of those neighborhoods and increases inequality, the study argues. There’s also the option of implementing a regional tax base, Lepley said, which would level out inequalities between different municipalities.

But each of those solutions would require a major shift, he said, and it’s unlikely any of them would get support.

“I think that the recommendations that we proposed are nearly politically impossible,” Lepley said. “That doesn’t mean that we want to have not said them.”