This invited commentary for the 2022 Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies symposium focuses on the need for better data about zoning. It offers insights into the state of zoning data, then discusses the mechanics of creating a national zoning atlas based on the methods used to create the Connecticut Zoning Atlas. The commentary articulates reasons we should invest collective effort into a national atlas. Finally, it invites academics, nonprofits, and governmental bodies to collaborate on zoning data research. A National Zoning Atlas. Why not?
The use of data in urban development is controversial because of the numerous examples showing its use to reinforce inequality rather than inclusion. From the development of Home Owners Loan Corporation (HOLC) maps, which excluded many minority communities from mortgages, to zoning laws used to reinforce structural racism, data has been used by those in power to elevate some while further marginalizing others. Yet data can achieve the opposite outcome by exposing inequity, encouraging dialogue and debate, making developers and cities more accountable, and ultimately creating new digital tools to make development processes more inclusive. This paper looks at the development of two recent approaches in New York and Seattle to measure equity in urban development.
In housing and mortgage markets, the increasing ubiquity of digitalization – emerging technologies that include AI, machine learning, and other types of informational automation – raises significant concerns about algorithmic bias, privacy, and the potential that centering data in public and private decision-making exacerbates power disparities. These are important concerns, but at the same time, innovations in digitalization hold promise for advancing civil rights in housing, supporting efforts to detect and remedy bias, as well as potentially offering creative new ways to direct federal, state, and local policies for housing justice.