Atticus Edwards: Yalecrest’s defense of single-family zoning is bad for the community and the planet

Tradition is racist in origin and encourages wasteful suburban sprawl.

Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune Historic preservationists are hosted a walking tour of a few blocks in Yalecrest, Saturday, October 24, 2015 to educate neighbors and homeowners who live in historic districts about the uniqueness of where they live. In past 20 years, at least 32 historic homes have been demolished here to make way for megahomes and the tour is meant to highlight the value of historic neighborhoods.

Last Thursday, at the Yalecrest Community Council and K.E.E.P. Yalecrest’s “community meeting” concerning the city government’s planned reforms to zoning laws, I flouted protocol by making a comment instead of asking panelists a question.

It is nevertheless a shame that the Yalecrest Neighborhood Council could not maintain civility. Halfway through my remarks, the meeting’s moderator physically tore the microphone from my hand. I have therefore decided to send for publication the whole of my public comment at the recent meeting so that readers may judge whether it justified such a violent gesture:

“In 1909, San Francisco established the first legal instance of what is called R1 Zoning — better known as single-family zoning — which was applied to a neighborhood called Elm Wood Park. The planned installation of a predominantly Black dance hall in Elm Park was cited as the reason for the new zoning law.

“Similar zoning laws soon spread from California to the rest of the U.S., including to the Yalecrest neighborhood of Salt Lake City, which grew out of that kind of zoning. Later on, the practice of single-family zoning largely became the surrogate policy for the laws that hitherto had enforced legal housing segregation. You couldn’t explicitly ban people of color from your neighborhood, but you could effectively ban low-income people with zoning laws.

“The racist undercurrent in these policies was exacerbated in 1934, when the U.S. government adopted a policy of denying government benefits to the neighborhoods that were more racially diverse, in a process called redlining. Yalecrest is among the single-family neighborhoods that received federal benefits as opposed to low-income neighborhoods in the same city.

“It is now illegal to build anything other than single family zoning in 75% of American residential neighborhoods. The current housing crisis is rooted in precisely these laws. The crisis will only get worse while, in our high-growth state, real estate developers compete to build increasingly expensive apartments on the small amount of space they’re permitted to develop.

“Everywhere zoning reforms are proposed, they receive pushback from those who would rather ‘preserve the character of the neighborhood’ than sacrifice a small amount of their personal comfort to relieve the burden on low-income residents and families.

“Many of you, after I sit down, will stand up and say: ‘Well of course I care about affordable housing. Of course, our community needs affordable housing, I agree with that. I share your concern. I just don’t want it here. Not in my backyard.’

“Whose backyard will these developments be in, then? The Avenues? Sugar House? How can we ask those neighborhoods to have affordable housing developments constructed if we’re not willing to have them in our own?

“Another problem with single-family zoning: Our planet (Utah included) is currently burning down as a result of out-of-control fossil-fuel emissions, and it is precisely the ubiquity of single-family zoning laws that stands as one of the most critical roadblocks to solving that crisis.

“Suburbs account for just one quarter of the U.S. population but, because of their various inefficiencies, suburbs account for one half of greenhouse gas emissions produced by residential spaces in this country. Because every affordable housing development barred from being built here is another suburb built out in Lehi, our decision to block necessary reforms to our zoning laws will directly contribute to the ongoing climate catastrophe that threatens the stability of human civilization itself.

“We can’t unbuild the Yalecrest suburb, but we can reduce greenhouse emissions by ensuring that more suburbs don’t have to be built far away from the town center. It would be a single, enormous step to curb climate change.”

Last Thursday’s “community meeting” was really a well-enforced echo-chamber of empowered suburbanites seeking to propagandize a foregone conclusion rather than nurture a community discussion in good faith; to wit, no panelists in favor of the proposed reforms were invited.

I nonetheless call on all to attend as many meetings concerning the proposed zoning laws as possible, and to express support for the reforms, which are a critical opportunity to help combat wealth inequality and climate change. We must meet the NIMBYs at K.E.E.P. Yalecrest with as much opposition as possible.

Atticus Edwards

Atticus Edwards is a lifelong resident of the Yalecrest neighborhood.