Zoning That Excludes Queers: What a Difference a Phrase Makes

By Gwen Urey

In Pomona, California, where I am a planning commissioner, a simple phrase in one sentence of a complex ordinance would have had a discriminatory effect had I not caught it. It could have excluded some low-income queer couples from housing funded in part by public moneys (tax incentives for affordable housing for seniors).

Previously, Pomona allowed senior housing only in an R-4 zone, but no vacant R-4 land remained. To accommodate a new senior housing development, planning staff drafted a new “overlay zone” to allow senior housing under certain conditions on parcels zoned as commercial or industrial. The proposed ordinance defined seniors as “persons 55 years or older or married couples in which one spouse is 55 years or older.”

I proposed changing the definition to include domestic partners. Here’s a play-by-play taken from the Minutes of the Pomona Planning Commission (Regular Meeting, 25 October 2000) highlighting the role of planning staff in explaining the issues and of commissioners in learning and establishing their positions:

Commissioner (PNer) Urey: I would like to address the issue on the overlay zone of whether you can have a younger spouse or domestic partner living with a 55 year-old. I wouldn’t want to have senior housing that discriminates. … The way it stands, [the Code Amendment] would discriminate against domestic partners when they aren’t both 55.

Staff 1: [Cities differ in language related to this issue]. The applicant says that this definition is consistent with the state. I suggest we leave this open, so we can do further research.

Commissioner A: This is a non-issue. The State has to give us their direction…

Staff 2:… [State law might change]. In the future it could… recognize domestic parternships. We could have the language read: the target population shall be consistent with the State.

Commissioner Urey: I would suggest that we change [the ordinance] to read: “for tenants, residents, or occupants who are married to each other, or domestic partners, either person shall be 55 years or older.”

Commissioner A: Why can’t just two adults 55 or older move in together? What’s the problem?

Commissioner Urey: This is a way someone younger than 55 could move in.

Commissioner A: How are you going to exclude a teenager from moving in?…. A 55-year-old with legal custody can’t move in there?

Commissioner Urey: No. Only if they are married.

Commissioner A: I find that hard to believe. I don’t think that we should exclude a teenager from living with a grandparent.

Staff 2:… If we allowed teenagers to live there, we would have to change parking and other things.

Commissioner B: I don’t think we should use planning to social engineer. I don’t think we need to complicate the issue by including new things. I think that it should stay the way it is.

It was moved and seconded to approve Code Amendment CA 00-006 with a change to include “target population who are married to each other or domestic partners, either shall be 55 years or older.” The motion was approved 4-2; Commissioners A and B dissented.

The mundane proceedings of local land use planning thus reveal how gays and lesbians might have been excluded from housing opportunities by 1) lack of queer-sensitive practice among progressive planning staff in presenting the draft ordinance; and 2) explicit homophobia teamed with ignorance at the planning commission level. While Commissioner A may never have understood the issue at hand, Commissioner B (who also mentioned Proposition 22, explained below) clearly wanted to discriminate.

In more cases than not, such acts of exclusion probably slip by unnoticed. In this case, the language that got changed was in a part of the ordinance that was not the main focus of discussion. In the meeting’s context, the ordinance itself was subordinate to the commission’s discussion. After the ordinance passed, the commission went on to consider an application for a senior housing project on an actual parcel of land, and the commission engaged in extensive discussion about some of its more customary and favorite topics–parking, fences, landscaping amenities, and security.

The Planning Commission’s vote on code amendments is only advisory to the City Council. Each commissioner serves at the pleasure of the council member who appointed him or her. Thus, I worried that Commissioner B would advise his Councilman to challenge this language in the Code Amendment when it came to Council. I conveyed my concern to my Councilman, who promised to support the more inclusive language. It passed in the City Council.

The local ordinance now protects the rights of queer seniors and their younger partners. Yet it could be a Pyrrhic victory, as the state law that provides tax credits to the developers of this housing refers only to married partners. In 1999, California voters passed Proposition 22, defining marriage as possible only between a man and a woman, so any regulations that stipulate marriage will exclude queer partners. However, the state itself prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in some areas, so discrimination in senior housing could eventually be challenged. Also, the local law could be applied to projects in the overlay zone that relied on private funding.

Progressive planners need to include queer issues in discussions about discrimination, in diversity training for planners and planning commissioners, and in planning school curricula. Continuing to act as if people should not have to talk about such issues if it makes them uncomfortable insiduously enables discrimination against queer people in two ways. First, by failing to talk about queer issues, we maintain ignorance among our constituencies. Secondly, our own lack of practice in the parlance of queer issues and in looking for the queer angle on general issues renders us incompetent when threats arise. When the discriminatory moment occurs, we may fail to recognize it or not be able to respond appropriately to it. Nor can we rely on queer advocacy groups alone to guard the queer interest in planning issues. In our zoning case, local media paid no attention and the meeting’s agenda offered no inkling of consequences for the queer community.

Gwen Urey is Vice-Chair of the Pomona Planning Commission and Chair of the Dept. of Urban & Regional Planning at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona.

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