Smart Growth Tosses a White Hood Over Black Homeownership, by Kevin Martin

When one imagines liberal environmental activists, the stereotype is one of tie-dyed followers of the Grateful Dead. These days, environmental activism is big business. Well-paid heads of green groups more likely choose Bruno Maglis over Birkenstocks. But some of the policies they promote hurt minorities, and lead you to expect them to wear the white robes of a Ku Klux Klansman.

Environmentalists want “smart growth” restrictions on development to keep “urban sprawl” from gobbling up America’s precious open spaces. But only about five percent of our nation is currently developed, while smart growth essentially creates a new form of segregation that prevents minorities, the poor and those climbing the socioeconomic ladder from realizing the American Dream of homeownership.

According to an econometric report just released by The National Center for Public Policy Research’s Center for Environmental Justice, the average price of a home would rise by $10,000 in 2002 dollars if smart growth restrictions like those already enforced in Portland, Oregon had been applied nationwide ten years ago. That would remove an estimated one million families from the housing market – 260,000 of them minority households. Those still determined to buy a home would find it financially easier to move further away from the cities. This would most likely lead to commutes that hurt families by reducing “quality time” together as well as releasing more noxious automotive emissions into the environment.

For those who remain in the cities, smart growth policies mandating tightly-packed communities force them to face rising rents, increased congestion and the possibility that the increased influx of people may overwhelm city infrastructure such as sewage systems.

Smart growth favors those who already own homes within “urban growth boundaries” or who can afford to buy into them after home prices rise. Those just getting their footing – like up-and-coming black entrepreneurs and young families – face economic discrimination. Not only that, these restrictions can also keep people from taking full advantage of their property.

Take, for example, some black farmers who live near Columbia, South Carolina. Smart growth policies there established “preservation areas” that keep owners from selling land that has sometimes been in their families since emancipation. Some of these black farmers can no longer compete with large-scale farming operations, while others simply want to subdivide their property to build homes for family members. Neither is allowed. Local NAACP chapter president Hattie Fruster told Insight magazine: “Their Sierra Club is trying to get land away from blacks in order for them to have rural vacation spots.” The Sierra Club’s response? South Carolina director Dell Isham replied, “there are no guarantees on your investments.” True, but smart growth is incompatible with a free market.

Environmentalist policies put property values at risk by manipulating the market. Corporate executives who manipulate the market are being indicted for such behavior.

Another smart growth victim is Terry Miller, a waitress in Fairfax County, Virginia. With over $2,000 a month to spend, she and her four children were still forced to live in a hotel on county assistance because of a lack of affordable housing. The hotel was better than living in her van. There, she had trouble enrolling her kids in school due to a lack of permanent address. The problem in Fairfax County is that new businesses eagerly moved in while new residential development was stifled. During the 1990s, Fairfax County gained approximately 166,000 jobs while only 56,000 new dwellings were built. People like Terry Miller cannot afford to compete in such a small and expensive housing market.

What can be done to fight these discriminatory policies? Environmentalists like to go after businesses with allegations that their practices cause environmental injustices against poor communities. President Clinton even signed an Executive Order requiring the government to prohibit federal actions from complicating the lives of the poor and minorities. In that same vein, new regulations – smart growth policies, in particular – should be analyzed before they are imposed to determine if they harm these same groups and communities.

Smart growth policies are a dumb idea because they restrict productive development. The desire of liberal environmentalists to throw a blanket plan over diverse groups of people is really no different that throwing on a white hood.

(Kevin Martin is a member of Project 21 and political activist in the Washington, DC area. He can be reached at [email protected].)

Note: New Visions Commentaries reflect the views of their author, and not necessarily those of Project 21.


Project 21, a leading voice of black conservatives for over 25 years, is sponsored by the National Center for Public Policy Research. Its members have been quoted, interviewed or published over 40,000 times since the program was created in 1992. Contributions to the National Center are tax-deductible and greatly appreciated, and may be earmarked exclusively for the use of Project 21.