It’s been surreal to see single-family zoning become one of the president’s favorite subjects. It still ranks well below FAKE NEWS, confederate monuments and mail-in voting on his Twitter feed, but he’s given it a fair bit of attention in recent weeks. The WaPo reports:
The next night, in a “tele-town hall” aimed at Wisconsin voters, Trump went further, saying that Democrats could “eliminate single-family zoning, bringing who knowsinto your suburbs, so your communities will be unsafe and your housing values will go down.”
Then there was this:
Trump’s histrionics have been warmly embraced by other conservatives at Breitbart, the National Review, the New York Post and Fox News. And no, the fact that self-proclaimed champions of the free market would support severely restricting property rights is not the least bit surprising; the principal political debate in this country has rarely been about whether you’re for or against big government, but rather which constituencies you want big government to serve. Many people, consciously or not, believe that keeping undesirables out of your neighborhood, whether that’s minorities, the poor, college students, or children, is a proper preoccupation of government.
Not all of those people are conservatives, of course. In Austin and many other big cities, most of them identify as progressives. It’s not unusual to see a home with two yard signs standing side-by-side: one proclaiming that Black Lives Matter and another imploring city government to prevent the construction of housing that people of lesser means depend on.
In 2015 the Obama administration implemented a new rule to the Fair Housing Act that required local governments that receive HUD funding to document and report on any barriers to housing that may exist in the community (i.e. zoning). The administration also published a “housing toolkit” for local governments. It stressed the importance of eliminating or reducing zoning regulations that discourage more affordable forms of housing. It specifically called out minimum lot regulations, a sacred cow in Austin.
A number of times I asked liberal neighborhood association leaders, Planning Commission members and City Council members how they squared their support for the zoning restrictions that their beloved president said was a segregationist scourge. I think it was relatively easy for them to bat the question away. After all, just because they supported Obama doesn’t mean they have to agree with him on everything. Plus, if you are someone who believed that Obama got rolled by big banks and other industry interests, it wouldn’t be that hard to believe that his housing policy had been similarly poisoned by real estate developers. Above all else, it wasn’t something that Obama talked about that much.
In the years since, however, housing policy, which has long been largely absent from national political discourse, has started to get more attention. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, hardly anyone’s idea of industry stooges, unveiled housing platforms that identified exclusionary zoning as an enemy of equality. Here’s what Joe Biden’s platform says:
Exclusionary zoning has for decades been strategically used to keep people of color and low-income families out of certain communities. As President, Biden will enact legislation requiring any state receiving federal dollars through the Community Development Block Grants or Surface Transportation Block Grants to develop a strategy for inclusionary zoning, as proposed in the HOME Act of 2019 by Majority Whip Clyburn and Senator Cory Booker. Biden will also invest $300 million in Local Housing Policy Grants to give states and localities the technical assistance and planning support they need to eliminate exclusionary zoning policies and other local regulations that contribute to sprawl.
Of course, none of this puts nearly as much of a spotlight on the issue as Trump. There’s nothing worse than sharing a position with Trump, particularly when he’s characterized the position in nakedly racist terms.
This could be a major opportunity for pro-housing activists and politicians. For years they have struggled to convince people that the seemingly populist fight against “developers” is in many instances actually elitist and regressive. Now, however, the evil developer in the White House is the one supporting single-family zoning while national progressive icons like Warren and Sanders oppose it. And then there’s the largest protest movement in U.S. history focused on racial inequality.
So far, however, I’m not seeing much evidence that local pols are seizing the opportunity. In their defense, they’ve got a lot on their plate: the city budget, potential plans to reimagine public safety and Project Connect. But land use intersects with all of those things. Restrictive zoning creates the sprawl that has undermined public transit and furthers the economic/racial segregation that produces inequality and crime. If not now, when?
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