Greater Greater Washington (an excellent urban planning and transportation blog in the DC area) just re-ran a fascinating article from 2019 about the history of the city's zoning and some of the stark class and racial divisions within the district. Similar stories played out all over America, but this is an unusually detailed account in part because of the involvement of Harland Bartholomew, one of the most prominent urban planners of the early 20th century and arguably one of the people who most shaped the course of the suburban experiment. It's well worth a read:
I'm particularly struck by the below excerpt about a century-old argument for putting wealthy neighborhoods full of single-family homes under glass, because it's fundamentally the same argument used today by many NIMBY activists. Emphasis mine:
By 1926, however, the agitation for a change of zone to authorize apartments was so great that the commissioners were almost persuaded to make some concessions. Bartholomew then suggested that a detailed study of land use in the entire city should be made, as well as a determination of how much land was absorbed each year by the construction of new apartment houses.
The extensive land-use survey took more than a year to complete but enabled Brownlow and Kutz to stand firm against the real estate men. To the surprise of the commissioners and the consternation of those who wanted a zoning change, the survey revealed that less than one percent of the city was actually used for apartment houses and that there was a considerable amount of vacant land zoned for such structures in other parts of the city.
I have routinely heard slow-growth or anti-growth activists use this argument in public forums in recent years, usually framed like this, "We don't need to change any zoning to allow infill development, because there is already more than enough zoned capacity for our next 20 or 30 years of projected growth elsewhere in the city."
There are a number of things wrong with the "zoned capacity" argument—among them the fact that just because a piece of land is zoned to allow X density of development doesn't mean that project would ever happen or be financially viable on that site. But the piece I'm struck by in this GGWash article is the extent to which it's basically a Separate But Equal argument akin to those used for segregation:
"There's already room for apartments elsewhere in town, so we shouldn't have to allow any rental housing to be built in our high-end neighborhood full of single-family houses."
A slightly more blunt / crude version is basically:
"There's room for the poor (or non-white) elsewhere, so we don't have to allow any of them to live near us."
Of course, this logic, when every rich neighborhood has the same incentive to weaponize it to their benefit, becomes absolutely ruinous. That's how you get whole cities locked in amber by zoning.