Guest Post: The Racist Origins of the Slow-Growth Movement

…and what it means for Thurston County

By: Marco Rosaire Rossi

Few modern transformations in the United States were as significant as the rapid growth of suburbs after World War II. During the Great Depression, the US housing market collapsed. In response, the federal government created the Federal Housing Administration (FHA). Unlike in European nations, where the housing question prompted governments to directly subsidize dwelling units, the United States provided housing to its citizens through loans. Realtors and developers were terrified that the federal government would enter the housing market as a competitor. To prevent this from occurring, they lobbied for the subsidization of home mortgages instead of dwelling units. These affordable loans gave millions of Americans an opportunity to own a home while providing a much-needed economic stimulus to the housing industry.The FHA ameliorated the fallout from the Great Depression, but after the Second World War, its effects caused an unprecedented housing boom. An overwhelming number of Americans fled central cities for suburban landscapes. Homeownership became the principle signifier for entering America’s middle-class. However, access to a mortgage still depended on a person’s creditworthiness. FHA would not support lending to individuals who had a high potential for default. At the time, the lending practices of banks were openly racist. Ethnic minorities, by virtue of their skin color, were not considered creditworthy regardless of their actual financial situation. The FHA supported this racism. Working with other government agencies, it labeled geographic areas dominated by ethnic minorities as risky for mortgage support. Additionally, it produced reports that ranked ethnicities based on their “beneficial effect on land values.” At the top of the list were people from English, German, Scottish, Irish, Scandinavian, and Northern Italian backgrounds. On the bottom were Russian Jews, Southern Italians, African-Americans, and Mexicans.The FHA strongly supported segregation, but it did not write laws to enforce it. Because of this, it was possible—though very difficult—for racial minorities to find willing lenders and sellers to purchase a home. Even though the risk was slim, there was a constant fear among white homeowners that racial minorities could move in next door and drive down property values. For this reason, neighborhoods created racial covenants that prohibited homeowners from selling their home to minorities as a condition of residency. In order to enforce racial covenants, white homeowners—in cooperation with developers—created homeowner associations. Enforcing racial segregation became a matter of neighbor-to-neighbor policing.These racial restrictions were soon seen as being on the wrong side of history. In 1948, the United States Supreme Court ruled in Shelley v. Kraemer that racial covenant agreements were unenforceable. Shortly after, the FHA revised its policy guidelines to no longer support racial segregation. The Fair Housing Act of 1968 ended racial discrimination in all forms of housing.These successes in racial justice did not mean that the racist legacy of homeowner associations had disappeared. The civil rights movement meant that mortgages and suburban neighborhoods were now available to anyone who financially qualified. For many white homeowners that was a serious problem. Unable to legally discriminate against racial minorities, homeowner associates began to advocating for restrictive zoning practices that prohibited new housing developments. Homeowners, who originally cooperated with developers, now became their primary antagonist. As one developer lamented, “paradoxically, I sell to people who become my enemies.”In a post-civil rights era, arguing for restrictive zoning practices on racial grounds had become a faux pas. Luckily, the rising popularity of environmentalism provided advocates of restrictive zoning a new rhetorical toolkit. Prohibiting new people from moving to an area was not about racial anxieties. It was about preventing the exhaustion of precision resources. Books like Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb and the Club of Rome’s The Limits of Growth described a world of increasing scarcity. Homeowner associations applied these prognostications of planetary destruction to their own backyards. If the cities in India could not feed their people, then the suburbs in America could not house newcomers. This marriage between privileged homeowners and misanthropic environmentalists created the foundation for the slow-growth movement. Advocates of slow-growth sought to reduce, if not stop completely, the pace of urban development. It mattered little that the books that they based their ecological catastrophism on were criticized for their crude determinism, faulty assumptions, and pseudoscientific posturing. For the slow-growth movement, they provided a progressive rationale for an inherently regressive political position.The question is to what degree is this history relevant to Thurston County? The answer is it is extremely relevant. It explains the county’s current housing shortage and the persistence of racial inequalities in homeownership.Between 1970 and 1980s, Thurston County experienced historical population growth. The 1970 US Census recorded the county’s population at 76,894, but by 1980 that number jumped to 124,264, a 61.6% increase. Before this time, the growth of duplexes and fourplexes correlated with the population increases. However, during the mid-1970s these types of housing units spiked, outstripped population growth, and then suddenly crashed. By the early 1980s, these units hit a low point in which they have never recovered from. The failure of these types of units to recover with the housing market indicates policy changes. Cities in Thurston County stopped zoning for these multifamily dwellings. Municipalities instituted more restrictive zoning practices that favored single-family homes and prevented new development projects from being built. Thurston County wasn’t alone in this change. At the same time, similar restrictions were occurring throughout the United States, especially on America’s liberal west coast. It was a sign that the slow-growth movement had become a major force in local politics.As intended, restrictive zoning practices affects newcomers, and in so far as those newcomers are racial minorities, they burden them the most. The draft summary of the 2017 Thurston County Assessment on Fair Housing indicates racial inequalities within the county’s homeownership market. In the past decades, there has been a noticeable decline in Thurston County’s white population. In 2000, whites made-up approximately 86% of the population. Today, that number has dropped to approximately 75%, and will likely continue to decline. In every single school district in the county, the white population is less than its surrounding municipality. In some cases it is by a considerable margin. In Olympia, whites are 85% of the general population, but 69% of the student population. In Lacey, whites are 74% of the general population, but 52% of the student population.Many racial minorities in Thurston County tend to do better economically than their white counterparts. Currently, the white median income is $60,834. But, the median income for African-Americans is $66,480, for Native Americans, it is $61,167, for Asians, it is $65,341, and for Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islanders, it is $99,875. Despite doing better economically, all these racial minorities are underrepresented in Thurston County’s homeownership population. African-Americans comprise 2.7% of the general population, but only 1.72% of homeowners. Native Americans are 1.4% of the general population, but 1.03% of homeowners. Asians and Native Hawaiians/Pacific Islanders are 6% of the general population, but only 4.19% of homeowners. This means that even though whites are 75% of the general population, they constitute 87.06% of the homeowner population. In Thurston County, even when racial minorities make more money than whites, they are still not equal to them in terms of homeownership. The reason for this is clear. Restrictive zoning practices have resulted in housing shortages that have caused home prices to skyrocket. In doing so, it has prevented racial minorities from joining their white counterparts in middle-class neighborhoods. Unfortunately, as racial minorities have become more successful, the goalpost for America’s middle-class has shifted away from them.The slow-growth movement constantly insists that their advocacy for restrictive zoning practices is not racially motivated. Their concerns are purely environmental. New housing developments in their neighborhoods are prohibited because their areas already have too many people. It is an issue of resources and carrying capacity. This proclamation begs a question: if there are truly too many people in these areas then who should be excluded? Not surprisingly, the loudest advocates of the “too many people” position never offer themselves up as part of the excess population. It is always someone else who qualifies as the “too many.” Historically, that unspoken someone else has been people of color.Whether advocates of the slow-growth movement admit it or not, restrictive zoning practices were designed to restrict certain people from accessing spaces, not restrict certain behaviors that are damaging to the planet. Racial disparities in social geography are not accidents of nature, but part of a history of social exclusion. The reality is that Thurston County is racially unequal because it was designed that way, and if the slow-growth movement continues to defend restrictive zoning practices, then Thurston County’s racial inequalities in housing will not only continue but worsen.

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