Finally, we’re having a conversation about housing on the federal level! Although the federal government plays a huge role in funding the great majority of affordable housing in this country, you almost never hear about housing policy in national politics. We were bad about the banks back in 2008 but there’s almost no debate about what to do about the tens of millions of people who can’t find affordable housing.
Elizabeth Warren, in preparing her probable presidential run, has taken a big stab at it. Madeleine Carlisle of the Atlantic reports:
It aims to lower the cost of developing housing so landlords don’t have to make rents so high, coming at the issue from two different angles. From one end, it tries to increase the supply of affordable housing by pouring billions of federal dollars into programs that subsidize developments in rural, low-income, and middle-income communities.
From the other end, the bill attempts to strip away the zoning laws that made developing housing so expensive in the first place. Many of these zoning laws limit low-income residents from moving to wealthier neighborhoods. In Tegeler’s opinion, the laws are one of the main drivers of housing unaffordability. Those laws typically exist at a local level, so in order to target them, Warren’s bill creates a competitive block-grant program. The grant money could be spent flexibly—on schools or parks, for example—and is intended to appeal to suburban communities with stricter zoning laws. Those communities can only access grants if they reexamine and redress their land restrictions.
This is not the first time that a national liberal icon has taken aim at zoning restrictions, but it may be the first action with teeth (assuming Democrats ever regain power). The Obama administration released a “housing toolkit” for cities in 2016 that described restrictive zoning as a “barrier” to housing across the country. However, I’m not aware of a meaningful attempt by the administration to do something more than wag its finger at the likes of Zilker.
However, I think just having the debate on a national level could have a profound impact in cities across the country, where progressives and Democrats actually do have some power. If Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, Bernie Sanders etc take a position on zoning, there are a fair number of people in Austin who for the first time ever might think about the issue and begin to consider it when they vote in local elections. (If you think that everybody has an opinion about zoning because of CodeNEXT, you need to get out of your City Hall bubble)