Let’s analyze this statement:

For some business owners in areas where the GRTC buses don’t reach, finding employees willing to walk from the bus stops to the workplaces isn’t easy…

“There is a huge disconnect between where the jobs are and where potential employees are coming from,” said William H. Baxter, president and CEO of the Retail Merchants Association…

“Some businesses are having some real challenges finding employees to work in retail locations,” Baxter said. “It’s going to have a negative impact as growth and expansion continues.” [VIA]

How do businesses decide where to locate their stores? By going to neighborhoods where there are plenty of folks who will buy their products- folks with high disposable income.

How do they keep their prices competitive? By cutting costs wherever possible, including offering few benefits and low salaries.

Where do the employees come from? Obviously not from the neighborhoods the stores serve, who could not afford the goods for sale in the stores if they worked in them. They come from neighborhoods where there’s so-called affordable housing.

And the TD’s diagnosis: Bus routes are too short.

Am I the only one who thinks this is a band-aid solution to a much larger problem?

Of course I support expanded transit. I’ve written about it many times on this blog.

Of course I support connecting employees with employers and decreasing our society’s auto-dependency in the process.

But that’s not the problem described in this article. The problem is employees who are willing to work for low wages live far away from low wage jobs. The problem is retail which caters to wealthy folks is located in neighborhoods that exclude lower-income people who cannot afford the housing nearby.

The problems are economically segregated housing development and single-use zoning.

Ever since zoning laws were declared legal by the Supreme Court in 1926 (Village of Euclid, Ohio v. Ambler Realty Co.), which found that there is a “valid government interest in maintaining the character of a neighborhood,” politicians and planners have segregated land use- keeping industrial, commercial, and residential land uses separate from one another.

That Court decision and the subsequent spread of zoning laws paved the way for our auto-dependency by making it possible – and even desirable- to locate employment and retail out of walking distance from residences.

And perhaps even more devastating to our communal life in this country, the Court’s decision paved the way for segregating housing by economic status. By validating government interest in controlling the “character” of neighborhoods, the Court opened the door to excluding “undesirable” people through zoning. Subsequently, many suburban localities only allowed zoning for low-density, large lot single-family homes and refused to zone for high density small lot and multi-family housing.*

It’s this legacy of excluding poor folks through zoning that has contributed to employment centers completely out of transportation range of people who need to work there. Expanding bus routes is important and will help in the short run, but why not talk about expanding affordable housing?

In order to not name problems without offering solutions, I suggest the Richmond region discuss enacting inclusionary zoning laws, which require residential building projects of a certain size to include affordable housing. Montgomery Co., MD is the pioneer of this zoning law; 10,000 affordable housing units have been built there since 1974. The county is the 6th wealthiest in the nation.

Other communities with inclusionary zoning laws:

  • Burlington, Vermont
  • Barnstable County, Massachusetts, which contains Cape Cod
  • Princeton, New Jersey
  • Frederick County, Maryland
  • Fairfax County, Virginia, the wealthiest county in the US
  • Chapel Hill, North Carolina
  • Davidson, North Carolina
  • Tallahassee, Florida
  • Madison, Wisconsin
  • Boulder, Colorado
  • Santa Fe, New Mexico
  • San Francisco, California
  • Palo Alto, California
  • San Mateo County, California
  • Sacramento, California
  • West Hollywood, California
  • Huntington Beach, California
  • San Diego, California
  • New York, New York
  • Montclair, New Jersey

Inclusionary zoning isn’t without problems or controversy. But changing zoning laws to require that politicians and developers build housing for all budgets would be a tremendous step towards alleviating the social problem of economic segregation.

*”For instance, one of the most commonly cited exclusionary [zoning] practices is the stipulation that lots must be of a certain minimum size and houses must be set back from the street by a certain minimum space. In many cases, these housing ordinances have prevented affordable housing from being built, because the large plots of land required to build within code are cost-prohibitive for more modest homes. Communities have remained only available to the upper classes because of these ordinances, effectively shutting the poor out of access to desirable communities.” [VIA]

** Another problem, of course, is income inequality. But that’s another post- this one is in response to the Times Dispatch article about short bus routes.