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Fifty years ago, the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. expressed a hope that someday people of all races would “live side by side in decent, safe, and sanitary housing.” Residential patterns in America today, however, remain highly segregated by race and income. The Fair Housing Act outlawed overt housing discrimination and unjustified discriminatory impacts, but zoning laws and housing finance structures have continued to impede housing integration, leaving communities nearly as racially homogenous as they were in the mid 20th century. These separate neighborhoods are far from equal. The majority of people who reside in financially distressed city-center neighborhoods are non-white. Historically, efforts to renovate city centers have perpetuated racial housing segregation by moving impoverished minority residents out of gentrifying areas. City-center revitalization is a key way to promote community health, wealth, and safety, but revitalization efforts must improve diversity as well as infrastructure. Revitalization efforts that include housing for all income levels and amenities that enrich all residents can help combat not only continuing racial disparity of opportunity in this country, but also the indicia of un-resolved racial animus that both geographically and psychologically divides the nation.

Failing urban cores represent one of today’s biggest societal problems. Decades of population and income loss have left many urban neighborhoods trapped in a physical, economic, and social death spiral. Cities present great potential sources of wealth and culture for society. It will be challenging for municipalities, regions, and states to create and execute plans to rebuild decaying urban neighborhoods in a way that will both generate economic opportunity and sustainably integrate people of different races, ethnicities, and income levels. Federal financing structures and local zoning laws should be harnessed to achieve that vision. At the very least, financing and zoning programs and policies must be reformed so that they are no longer barriers to integrated gentrification.

Market trends support the city investment effort. The “American dream” concept of home is no longer unitary, focused solely on single-family detached homes on large lots in far-flung suburbs. Housing preferences seem to be shifting toward denser, more walk-able, urban-feel mixed-use neighborhoods; provided, however, that those neighborhoods are safe and provide adequate amenities and services. The market’s renewed demand for quality urban housing presents an opportunity for urban revival. Municipalities can salvage their city centers by aligning their land use laws and affordable housing policies to catch and ride this wave of consumer demand. Financial institutions and zoning approaches need to modernize in order to encourage and enable the creation of multi-use neighborhoods and properties. Innovative zoning and financial tools can be employed not only to achieve a redesigned city’s integrated physical infrastructure, but also its income, racial, and cultural diversity.

This article discusses the need to reform financial structures and zoning approaches in the context of needed urban redevelopment. Part I explains the inadequacy of historic affordable housing programs, pointing out that these have been insufficient to provide equitable housing opportunities and have, in fact, entrenched the problems of city-suburb divide and racial and income segregation. Part II posits that federal housing assistance should be re-imagined in a more holistic way, focused first on improving a neighborhood rather than individual renters or units. It also discusses some creative ways that federal and local agencies may enlist private investment and involvement in community revitalization efforts while retaining necessary control. Part III advocates that city planners move away from use-segregated zoning approaches and embrace inclusionary approaches that will promote neighborhoods that are diverse with respect to property uses and types of residential housing options. With the proper foresight and incentive structures, urban gentrification can be channeled to maximize housing integration and neighborhood stability.



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