A historic marker at 37th and Pflanz streets in Portland commemorates the Warley v. Buchanan lawsuit. | Photo by Michael L. Jones

After Minneapolis became the first major American city to end single-family home zoning in December 2018, Mayor Jacob Frey touted the move as a repudiation of the city’s history of racial segregation. Other cities, including Portland, Ore., and Seattle, are looking to follow suit in an effort reverse their own legacies of redlining and to deal with contemporary problems like urban sprawl, homelessness and the lack of affordable housing.

So far, there’s been no major push for a similar law change in Louisville despite the significant role the city played in the creation of such zoning laws intended to enforce segregation.

The practice of exclusionary zoning, including single-family zoning laws, started as a reaction to a lawsuit here, Buchanan v. WarleyThe case that would shape housing policy in America for the next century started in 1914 when the city of Louisville passed an ordinance that barred African-Americans from moving onto a predominantly white city block.

William Warley was an African-American journalist, founder of the crusading Louisville News, and Charles H. Buchanan was a white real estate agent opposed to segregation.

Warley, who also was the first president of the Louisville NAACP, wanted to challenge the law, so he arranged to purchase a home from Buchanan near what is today the corner of 37th Street and Pflanz Avenue in the Portland neighborhood. Warley refused to make the final payment on the home because he would never be allowed to live in it. Buchanan sued Warley to force him to complete the agreement.

The Kentucky Court of Appeals ruled against Buchanan, upholding Louisville’s ordinance, but the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the decision in 1917. The court ruled that municipalities could not prevent individuals from conveying property solely based on the race of the purchaser.

However, rather than ending racial segregation in housing as the litigants intended, it led municipalities to develop subtler discriminatory tools.

In his groundbreaking book, “The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America,” the historian Richard Rothstein wrote that after the Buchanan ruling, “segregationist officials faced two distinct problems: How to keep lower-income African-Americans from living near middle-class whites and how to keep middle-class African-Americans from buying into white middle-class neighborhoods. For each of these conditions, the federal and local governments developed distinct solutions.”

Part of the so-called solution was to only allow single-family homes in certain areas in an effort to price minorities from specific neighborhoods.

In Minneapolis, about 75 percent of residents live in areas that are zoned for single-family homes. By allowing developers to build duplexes and triplexes in every part of the city, Frey told The New York Times that Minneapolis hoped to lower racial and social barriers that have kept generations disenfranchised.

“Minneapolis is not alone in being a city with a history of intentional segregation. I’m hopeful that we’re not alone in undoing it,” Frey said.

Exclusionary zoning in Louisville

Multi-family zoning is concentrated in lower income neighborhoods. | Courtesy of Joshua Poe

For more than 100 years, American municipalities have used exclusionary zoning, restrictive property covenants and limited access to bank loans as a form of redlining to make some neighborhoods unavailable to low-income families.

Jack Trawick, former executive director of the Center for Neighborhoods in Louisville, said he’ll be paying close attention to the Minneapolis experiment, but he worries developers are going to find it difficult to build single-family housing units for low-income families in affluent neighborhoods.

“I’d like to see what comes of this. Regrettably, there are often unintended consequences to deregulation — just as there have been to the original regulations themselves. Rather than eliminating single-family zoning, I would favor a buy-down of land costs for affordable housing developers. It is the land cost that necessitates multiple units in otherwise affluent neighborhoods,” Trawick added.

If a quarter-acre site in Green Springs costs $24,000, but a one-eighth acre lot in Shelby Park is just $6,000, then the only way to build a unit in Green Springs comparable to one in Shelby Park would build a four-plex — thus the need for more permissive zoning, Trawick explained. However, this calculus would not allow for the construction of affordable, detached single-family homes in Green Springs, which Trawick said is the housing of choice for most Louisville households.

“The only way to allow for single-family homes would be to divide the quarter-acre lot in half, provide the developer a subsidy of $6,000 per lot to write down the land cost and then ensure somehow that the original affordability is preserved in case the initial buyer should choose to sell,” he added.

Trawick and other affordable housing experts Insider talked to said a zoning change alone would not erase the case’s legacy here.

Louisville currently is using a $30 million Choice Neighborhoods grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to revitalize the Russell neighborhood, including razing the Beecher Terrace housing project and replacing it with a mixed-income community, in an effort to integrate Louisvillians across different demographics and reinvest in areas of historic disinvestment.

City officials have said on numerous occasions that they hope to leverage the Russell investment into a greater revitalization of all of west Louisville, but urban planner Joshua Poe has been a vocal critic of the approach. He said it is a way for the city to funnel public money to private developers.

Urban Planner Joshua Poe has studied the impact of redlining on housing in Louisville. Photo courtesy of Urban League

For that reason, he said, a zoning overhaul alone would not work for Louisville.

“Zoning is designed to segregate, it’s not a flexible tool. It has created a real caste system in America, but you can’t just change the law and think the negative impact will reverse itself,” he said.

Poe won an award from Harvard University in 2017 for his interactive map “Redlining Louisville: The History of Race, Class and Real Estate,” which examined the impact Louisville’s response to the Buchanan ruling left on the city.

Poe said Harland Bartholomew, who is considered the father of modern urban planning, introduced the first exclusionary zoning ordinance in St. Louis in 1919. Bartholomew’s successful segregation of his hometown made him an in-demand consultant, Poe said, and in the early 1930s, Louisville civic leaders hired Bartholomew to write a comprehensive development plan for the city.

Bartholomew’s “Negro Housing Survey,” which Poe discovered in the St. Louis planner’s personal archives, laid the groundwork for west Louisville as we know it today.

One of his innovations was to zone any area where African-Americans might move as industrial. This led to the creation of areas like Rubbertown and limited what other kinds of businesses could relocate in the community.

Courtesy of Joshua Poe

Because of Bartholomew’s plan, Poe said, more than 75 percent of Metro Louisville’s African-American population lives in the West End, occupying less than 5 percent of the land in Jefferson County.

“Louisville is one of the most segregated cities in the country, and it’s segregated differently than most places,” Poe explained. “Most cities are segregated so that you have pockets of groups in different areas. We measure how many white people or black people would have to move to create integration. But in Louisville, African-Americans are corralled in one area of the city. I’ve never seen anything like that anywhere else I’ve lived.”

The Metropolitan Housing Coalition’s 2018 State of Metropolitan Housing Report found that female- and minority-led households in south and west Louisville are in greater danger of being involuntarily displaced than residents in other parts of the city.

Cathy Hinko, MHC executive director, said she applauds the idea of overhauling zoning laws, but she doesn’t think it would have much impact on low-income families.

“I love this because the planner Harland Bartholomew came up with the zoning classifications we have specifically to enact segregation without breaking the law. Of course, it still leaves the lot sizes, which can be a daunting cost, but it allows three units in the building instead of one,” Hinko said.

Vince Jarboe, president of the Metro Planning Commission, concurred with Trawick’s assessment that developers have a role to play in helping the city solve its housing problem.

Trawick is working with the Housing Partnership Inc. to use affordable housing development to target particular blocks with at least 40 percent homeownership to raise property values.

Jarboe said he would like the city to work out a way to do the same thing.

“You can buy a home in west Louisville for $10,000 and put $60,000 into it to fix it up,” Jarboe said. “It is still going to be worth just half of what you put in it. That’s a problem I’d like to see someone figure out. That way we can get more people in homes.”

Minneapolis’ zoning change is part of a larger effort called Minneapolis 2040 to achieve equitable growth and social stability over the next two decades.

Poe said Louisville needs to develop a similar comprehensive plan to empower community residents, rather than developers, to deal with racial segregation and other housing issues. He will discuss his ideas on Jan. 29, as part of the Leadership Louisville Center’s Thought Leadership Series.

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Michael L. Jones
Michael L. Jones, a freelance journalist and author, covers communities for Insider Louisville. His latest book "Louisville Jug Music: From Earl McDonald to the National Jubilee" (History Press) received the 2014 Samuel Thomas Book Award from the Louisville Historical League. In addition to his contributions to Insider, his writing appears regularly in LEO Weekly, Louisville Magazine, Food & Dining – Louisville Edition, and Who’s Who Louisville: African American Profiles. He also sits on the board of directors of the National Jug Band Jubilee. Jones and his wife, Melissa Amos-Jones, a physical therapist, live in the Kenwood Hills neighborhood near Iroquois Park.