The Bright Red Line: Racist Single-Family Zoning

Photo by Jean Phillippe Delberghe from


Greg Cantori is a friend and colleague from nonprofit leadership. Greg led a nonprofit housing development organization in South Baltimore and is a former executive of the Maryland Association of Nonprofit Organizations. He is an avid environmentalist, cyclist and advocate, as is his wife Renee, for racial equity and justice.

As someone who went to graduate school in social work and community planning and worked for several decades in neighborhood development and affordable housing, I am shocked and humbled by my ignorance about how racist housing and zoning policies have protected white wealth and power and limited asset building from a home purchase and access to quality neighborhoods for families and people of color.

Greg offers his thoughts on why attention to zoning and zoning reform is so important and so challenging.

I dream of the day when you cannot point to an area and say, “That’s where the poor, the rich, the Black or Latino or white, (or any other segregated group) people live.” I dream of open, not gated, thriving, diverse communities where everyone is welcome and where every stranger is just a friend you haven’t met yet. 

Where we live determines nearly every aspect of, and access to, opportunities, jobs, education and our vital social networks. With our dysfunctional community design based on zoning laws of today, we get dysfunctional traffic jams, long commutes, poor educational opportunities, segregation, distrust, sprawl and gates.  

George Carlin – the deeply insightful comedian who loved observing human beings as ‘human doings’ said:

 “I think it’s the duty of the comedian to find out where the line in society is drawn, and then cross it deliberately….I like to bring the audience along with me, and see how happy they are that we crossed it together!”

One of those bold red lines, those social codes, became what we call zoning. A tool presumptively used to separate incompatible uses from each other, such as heavy industry from residential areas, although in fact, many minority areas disproportionately endure dumps, water, air and noise pollution.

Zoning actually has its origins based on the intent of separating classes and races, not just uses. Baltimore Mayor J. Barry Mahool, in signing one of the first American zoning laws in 1910, stated, “Blacks should be quarantined in isolated slums in order to reduce the incidents of civil disturbance, to prevent the spread of communicable disease into the nearby White neighborhoods and to protect property values among the White majority.”[1]

These White community leaders came up with single-family zoning as a brilliant tool and the last bastion of discriminatory segregation, after redlining, community covenants and blockbusting were, one by one, struck down by the courts. The courts couldn’t attack single-family zoning because no specific class could be proven as directly harmed.

This de jure (systematized legal) segregation tool worked as well then as it does today. This insidious racial separation has resulted in people of color having, on average, 1/10 the wealth and 60% of the income of whites. Whites have benefited for decades from equity and appreciation, while minorities primarily have remained renters or lived in lower home value, segregated areas. In fact, people of color are in worse economic shape today than they were in the ’60s.[2] Today, single-family zoning locks up 75% or more of residential land in urban and suburban areas in our country. That leaves a meager 25% or less of land left for everything else: Duplexes, tris, quads, apartments and mixed-use uses.

Very slowly, activists, and a few extraordinary politicians willing to take huge political risks, are looking at several tools to counter this insidious and wasteful locking up of land. City and county councils are passing laws permitting accessory dwelling units (ADUs), also known as granny flats or in-law apartments. ADUs can stand alone in backyards, or as additions, or occupy a portion of a home, basement or garage. Some areas are also permitting much smaller junior ADUs as well, creating the potential of two rental units on what was a single-family house.

In a few cities and states, reformatting single-family zoning into ‘neighborhood residential’ zones or even mixed uses harkens back to when homes were often duplexes, tris and quads with ADU’s as well.  That mix provides an extraordinary diversity of housing types and costs for both owners and renters. New opportunities are created for affordable, thriving, walkable, bikeable and diverse communities. In communities such as Takoma Park, Eastport and Annapolis in Maryland, and St. Petersburg in Florida, many people are enjoying the best quality of life throughout all their life stages because of the many housing choices available all in one place.

Today I can imagine George Carlin crossing that red single-family zoning line, and I can see all of us much happier because of it.

By Christopher Silver
From: Manning Thomas, June and Marsha Ritzdorf eds. Urban Planning and the African American Community: In the Shadows. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 1997.

[2] The black-white economic divide is as wide as it was in 1968 – Washington Post, June 4, 2020


  • Tom Adams writes and speaks on topics vital to the intersection of our personal lives with our community and global lives. He has for decades been engaged in and written about nonprofit leadership and transitions, spirituality and spiritual growth, how we each contribute to a more just and equitable world and recovery from addictions and the Twelve Step recovery movement.


  1. sally mac

    In the middle class, wealth has been passed down through home equity. Discriminatory practices such as redlining at both the VA and FHA after WWII widened the wealth gap between rich and poor. Our country needs to reckon with this disparity.

    • Tom Adams

      Indeed Sally, first we need to admit it, then come to grips with what making amends looks like. Best, Tom