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The Geography of Inequality: How Land Use Regulation Produces Segregation

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  03 February 2020

University of California, Merced
*Jessica Trounstine, UC Merced Foundation Board of Trustees Presidential Chair and Professor of Political Science, University of California, Merced,


Public goods in the United States are largely funded and delivered at the local level. Local public goods are valuable, but their production requires overcoming several collective action problems including coordinating supply and minimizing congestion, free-riding, and peer effects. Land use regulations, promulgated by local governments, allow communities to solve the collective action problems inherent in the provision of local public goods and maintenance of property values. A consequence of these efforts is residential segregation between cities along racial lines. I provide evidence that more stringent land use regulations are supported by whiter communities and that they preserve racial homogeneity. First, I show that cities that were whiter than their metropolitan area in 1970 are more likely to have restrictive land use patterns in 2006. Then, relying on Federal Fair Housing Act lawsuits to generate changes in land use policy, I show that restrictive land use helps to explain metropolitan area segregation patterns over time. Finally, I draw on precinct level initiative elections from several California cities to show that whiter neighborhoods are more supportive of restricting development. These results strongly suggest that even facially race-neutral land use policies have contributed to racial segregation.

Research Article
Copyright © American Political Science Association 2020 

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