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Yes, remnants of discriminatory urban planning remain

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The way we build cities reflects how we view ourselves— and how we view others. For decades, zoning bylaws and restrictive covenants have worked to keep parts of North America’s cities white, relegating racialized people to specific, segregated areas and baking inequality into our housing systems.

It has been well-established that American cities used zoning laws to enforce racial segregation. According to a January 2021 working paper from the U.S. National Bureau for Economic Research, “real estate developers had used restrictive covenants as early as the first decades of the nineteenth century on tracts of houses built on the urban periphery or in suburbs. These deed restrictions, passed from developer to homeowner, explicitly forbade commercial uses and beginning in the final decades of the nineteenth century, the selling of the house to racial and religious minorities… [Then,] as the twentieth century wore on, white homeowners increasingly turned to more formal tools of exclusion and neighborhood control, particularly zoning.”

But Canada has a very similar history. In a 2012 report by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives on municipal exclusion, author Ian Skelton noted that, “the practice by municipalities of using controls on land use to constrain their social composition is a long standing one in Canada…In Canada several authors have pointed to experiences, in a number of cities, of municipal controls such as zoning regulations which are operationalized to preserve high land and dwelling values, and to ensure that areas are developed and maintained for affluent groups.”

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Hogan’s Alley in Vancouver is a prime example: Once a multicultural home to most of Vancouver’s Black community, it was demolished in the 1960s to make way for a municipal viaduct. Stephanie Allen, founding member and director of Hogan’s Alley Society, wants to create a non-profit community land trust that would provide 70 per cent below-market rent and 30 per cent market rent with no private ownership. “We’re just asking for housing that allows people to have joys in their lives,” she says.

Allen explains that this housing is especially important to Black people in Vancouver, because it would help address homelessness. She says she believes it’s necessary to tackle the racism and discrimination that cause Black people to be homeless and to stop criminalizing people experiencing homelessness. “How can we talk about policy where policing and homelessness is put in the same sentence?” Allen asks.

Other urban planners agree. “We all know that class and race go hand-in-hand,” says Byron Nicholas, supervising transportation planner for Hudson, N.J., and creator of Black + Urban, a community of Black urban planners, designers and forward thinkers. He explains that when developers build luxury apartments with private amenities available only to residents, they are making decisions about who they want to make comfortable and provide services for and, by extension, who they care about.

Nicholas describes these types of exclusive luxury developments as gated communities without physical gates. “[Developers] are buying the land in the low-income minority communities for cheap, then they’re spending a lot of money on the amenities and the materials and they’re preventing the folks that live in the surrounding communities from benefiting from those amenities,” he says.

Privately owned public spaces are a way to counteract this. Since 1961, New York City has offered waivers for developers to build larger properties in exchange for creating indoor and outdoor spaces that the public can enjoy. But to have this type of community-based planning approach, cities must address zoning bylaws.

Sandeep Agrawal, director of the School of Urban and Regional Planning at the University of Alberta, is working with the City of Edmonton on its zoning bylaw renewal initiative. Under this plan, the city is re-evaluating its zoning bylaws from equity and inclusivity lenses to make bylaws more reflective of contemporary urban realities.

“One of the problems with zoning has been that as a way to address land use issues, it has been in the past used to control and segregate people,” Agrawal says. He explains that in Canada, zoning has been used to discriminate against Black people, Indigenous people, Chinese people and Jewish people, among others. For example, in 1923, Edmonton city council passed an ordinance that prevented Black people from using public swimming pools due to fears of mixed-race bathing.

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While the most overtly racist and discriminatory elements of zoning bylaws and other ordinances have been largely removed, there are still remnants that ultimately discriminate against low-income people and recent immigrants because restrictive zoning impacts their ability to find affordable housing.

Updating municipal bylaws isn’t just a moral obligation, it’s also a legal responsibility, Agrawal insists. “If you look at equity from a human rights perspective, then legally municipalities are bound to bring equity within its jurisdiction… and make sure that their policies and regulations do not overtly or otherwise… discriminate against people who may be marginalized,” he says. Inclusionary zoning that allows for supportive housing and mixed-use housing would go a long way to combat this.

Advocates say this can only be done with government investment in affordable and community housing. After the Second World War, the federal government began investing in community housing, beginning with veterans and eventually expanding to other groups, including seniors, low-income families and recent immigrants and refugees. Then, in January 1994, the federal government cancelled all new long-term investment in social housing. By the time it began reinvesting in community housing in 2016, the country’s community housing stock was aging and in a dire state of disrepair—Toronto Community Housing Corporation was losing, on average, one unit a day because they were uninhabitable— and the need for affordable housing was astronomical.

“You can’t privatize a human right… if we expect to meet people’s needs,” insists Kaite Burkholder Harris, executive director for Alliance to End Homelessness Ottawa. Burkholder Harris says we need to normalize having one-third of housing across the country that is non-profit because larger units designed for families become less lucrative for private owners and ultimately lead to ‘renovictions’.

Burkholder Harris highlights the situation in Ottawa’s Heron Gate neighbourhood, where more than 400 people are being evicted in what she calls North America’s largest mass eviction. “It should be an embarrassment that we allowed this to happen,” she says. “It’s unacceptable to do a mass eviction in a neighbourhood that is predominantly racialized.” The developer, Timbercreek, said to The Globe in 2018 that the reason relocation came sooner than expected is because 25 per cent of the 150 homes were deemed unfit for habitation. But, Burkholder Harris says, the Heron Gate evictions are only the latest in a decades-long trend of mass evictions of Black and other racialized people, including in Africville in Halifax, Lebreton Flatts and Manor Village in Ottawa, and Little Burgundy in Montreal.

“The only way that cities can be inclusive is if there’s mixed tenures and incomes across all communities. We can’t continue to build these communities where we have pockets of deep poverty and pockets of extreme wealth,” says Christina Maes Nino, executive director of Manitoba Non-Profit Housing Association. Maes Nino considers the government’s perspective toward community housing as problematic because of what she says is the faulty notion that non-profit and community housing can be self-sustaining. This is reflected in the way governments fund community housing through capital investments or loans instead of through income supports and housing subsidies.

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Advocates describe community housing as a positive solution to tenants’ social and economic needs because many community housing providers partner with organizations to provide support to tenants, including mental health professionals, cultural support for Indigenous people, programming for seniors to enable them to maintain active, and counselling for women and children fleeing domestic violence. Providing these additional supports creates an environment where tenants feel safe, supported and better connected to their communities.

“We need to think about housing that shows we love people,” Allen says.

Published one year after the killing of George Floyd and the ensuing global reckoning over anti-Black racism, the Time for Change special report is intended to amplify the voices of Black leaders, while shedding light on the work that still needs to be done to combat systemic inequalities across infrastructure, employment and other facets of daily life.

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