Herbert Hoover and Zoning

A signed picture of Herbert Hoover in 1921 sitting at a desk taking notes.

By Thomas F. Schwartz

In the second volume of his memoirs, The Cabinet and the Presidency 1920-1933, Herbert Hoover explained the origins of zoning codes: “The building codes in our towns and cites had been largely dominated by contractors and labor organizations who greatly and unnecessarily increased costs. We called a national conference of public officials and technical experts to consider the question.” 

Having a group of experts in various fields provide a template that was reviewed by “975 engineers, architects, municipal officials, and representatives of the building industry, whose useful criticisms were incorporated,” model zoning codes were made available for any government body to use. Hoover indicated that the push nationwide to implement the codes was “to protect homeowners from business and factory encroachment into residential area.” The adoption of the codes was voluntary with local, municipal, and state officials making the decisions to implement them. The emphasis was on government that was most responsive to citizen’s desires which meant leaving the decisions at the local level. Not all cities adopted them, as witnessed by Houston, Texas.

This effort at rational planning has been called into question recently by critics who argue that zoning codes, rather than providing homeowners protection from the abuses of builders and development, was used by local leaders to promote segregated neighborhoods. The most familiar author making this allegation is Richard Rothstein, The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America (2017). 

As Rothstein posits: “Secretary Hoover, his committee members, and city planners across the nation believed that zoning rules that made no open reference to race would be legally sustainable—and they were right.” But many localities “were not always fastidious in hiding their racial motivations.” Hence, Hoover’s work in crafting zoning codes provided the pretext for local officials to create racial segregation. Greater evidence of this was embodied in New Deal programs for home loans and low-income housing that explicitly created the practice of redlining as evidenced in many of the housing maps. Rothstein concludes that these abuses of policies reflect “state action” not those of private individuals. The remedy therefore requires government solutions, preferably at the federal level, not local.

Robert C. Ellickson’s America’s Frozen Neighborhoods: The Abuse of Zoning (2022) is willing to concede that not everyone involved in crafting the zoning code did so with it leading to greater segregated neighborhoods. He states:

“In 1922, Hoover’s panel had no inkling that localities would begin to use zoning for exclusionary purposes, harming outsiders with no voice in the adoption of injurious policies.  As early as the 1930s but especially since 1970, suburbs and cities have increasingly used zoning policies to inflict massive damage on both regional housing consumers and the national economy.” 

Ellickson admits that “local control of zoning, the aim of Herbert Hoover’ model act, makes perfect sense in some contexts.’’ The problem, as Ellickson sees in practice, is “local officials lack incentives to use zoning in a regionally appropriate fashion….In retrospect, the Hoover panel was wrong to give local government a blank check.” Ellickson reaches a similar conclusion as Rothstein: “States should correct Hoover’s error. Leviathan can do mischief at city hall. Excessive home rule has damaged the nation.”

Abuses abound in the implementation of all government policies at all levels. To imply that Hoover implicitly intended zoning codes to support segregated neighborhoods is at odds with his refusal to sign a restrictive covenant for his Washington, D.C. residence. His views on zoning aligned and were consistent with his political philosophy in voluntary assistance, small government, consumer choice, and efficiency.  While both authors provide examples of abuse, they look at only one side of the equation. Surely there were and are communities that use zoning without racial intent. Do cities without zoning codes have any different outcomes? State and federal government oversight exists to correct abuses found at lower levels. What guarantees they will be any better managers of zoning policies?

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