January 19, 2006
Vol. 25 No. 8

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    Costly amenities may be barrier to gated golf communities

    By Kim Dixon
    News Office

    Housing discrimination is illegal; golf is not. That is one way to begin to think about a recent paper by Lior Strahilevitz, which sets out a thesis that luxury amenities, such as golf courses located within residential communities, may inadvertently facilitate housing segregation.

    The practice of building golf courses into residential communities surged in the 1990s, and by 2000, such developments accounted for 40 percent of all golf courses, according to Strahilevitz, Assistant Professor in the Law School.

    Decades earlier, fair housing laws and residential covenants made discrimination in housing illegal. But in much the same way that the Brown v. Board of Education decision by the U.S. Supreme Court failed to stamp out de-facto segregation in schools, segregation of the races in housing endures.

    In part, this can be explained by a persistent demand for racial homogeneity in housing, despite government crackdowns on discrimination in sales, leases and advertising. Restrictions on racial exclusion via these simple mechanisms, Strahilevitz suggests, led to the evolution of “exclusionary amenities.”

    Such amenities are collective resources that are paid for by all members of a club, “at least in part, because a willingness to pay for the goods in question functions as an effective proxy for other desired membership characteristics.” These goods exclude outsiders, due to their high cost and lack of necessity, said Strahilevitz.

    “Exclusionary amenities are worrisome where willingness to pay for them functions as a proxy for race,” Strahilevitz said.

    Given the substantial premiums that racially segregated caucasian neighborhoods still fetch, developers may embed costly amenities for their tendency to deter middle- and upper-income African Americans from joining the community. He describes this phenomena as, “If you build it, they won’t come.”

    Golf, for its part, is one of the most racially homogenous sports, and carries with it the legacy of “whites only” country clubs from the pre-integration era. “To the extent that communities wished to employ racially discriminatory selection mechanisms using exclusionary amenities, golf presented the best opportunities,” Strahilevitz writes.

    In fact, whether or not an individual played golf was a better predictor of his race than income and household wealth during the 1990s. Industry reports suggest that suspiciously high numbers of non-golfing households in counties with large African-American populations are moving into golf communities with mandatory golf club memberships. That raised the question “what are they paying for?”

    This also produces a testable hypothesis: Did optional membership in residential golf communities have higher percentages of African-American residents than comparable mandatory membership golf communities?

    Strahilevitz’s next project is to gather 2000 census data from Florida, controlling for income, home prices and other factors to determine if that is the case, and to study the racial mix of residential golf communities versus non-golf gated communities.

    The practice has been documented in other settings. In Falls Church, Va., a developer admitted to including a bar and excluding a playroom from his new building to discourage people with children from buying property. Developers in Ave Maria Township in Florida have used the presence of a conservative Catholic university to attract Catholics to the surrounding neighborhoods. And communities often forego the construction of “inclusionary amenities,” such as basketball courts, subway stops and soccer fields, which would have been procured but for concerns that they might attract too many heterogeneous residents or visitors to a homogeneous area.

    On the topic of how the law might respond, Strahilevitz noted that regulation would be complex, especially because there is no proof for direct cause and effect. One solution could be to have law require “unbundling” of exclusionary amenities from property ownership, since such mandatory membership schemes tend to be racially skewed.

    Another approach, he suggests, may be promotion of efforts to change the preferences of the group targeted for discrimination.

    That is already happening with African Americans and golf. The ascension of Tiger Woods in recent years has boosted participation by African Americans in the sport, which might render the golf course strategy ineffective as a means of discrimination, Strahilevitz said.

    But Strahilevitz points out that such a shift does not prevent the use of other amenities for discrimination.