Perpetuating Segregation or a New Path Forward for America?
Last month, Donald Trump said the quiet part out loud about exclusionary zoning, admitting its purpose is to keep the rich from being “bothered” by the presence of lower-income neighbors. This week he’s written an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, aptly called “We’ll Protect America’s Suburbs,” that lays out his exclusionary ideology on housing:
We reversed an Obama-Biden regulation that would have empowered the Department of Housing and Urban Development to abolish single-family zoning, compel the construction of high-density “stack and pack” apartment buildings in residential neighborhoods, and forcibly transform neighborhoods across America so they look and feel the way far-left ideologues and technocratic bureaucrats think they should.
…a relentless push for more high-density housing in single-family residential neighborhoods, has become the mainstream goal of the left.
For months, the Trump administration has been steadily rolling back regulations at the Department of Housing and Urban Development. It’s now official that the administration has repealed a requirement that cities “affirmatively further fair housing” (AFFH). This rule required cities that receive federal funding to identify racial bias in local housing patterns, and to actively reduce segregation through housing policy. It was a relatively mild requirement designed to help lower-income residents and historically marginalized groups better access high-resource neighborhoods and cities.
Trump’s exclusionary housing policies fit into a larger pattern of systemic racism that has denied Black, Indigenous and all people of color the opportunities white families have enjoyed. As Senator Scott Wiener said when pushing back against Trump’s attacks, “The era of NIMBYism dictating housing policy is coming to an end — a ‘Suburban Lifestyle Dream’ must include diversity, access to opportunity, and housing that’s affordable for all. We will not let racists like President Trump get in the way of housing reform in California.”
Opponents of AFFH and opponents of denser housing will rarely state outright their desire to exclude lower-income residents; instead, they commonly appeal to “neighborhood character” and “preservation.” But by tweeting that “all of the people living their Suburban Lifestyle Dream … will no longer be bothered or financially hurt by having low income housing built in your neighborhood” Trump offered a nakedly classist and racist appeal to NIMBYs and his older, whiter supporter base ahead of Election Day. As Trump put it:
Your home will go down in value and crime rates will rapidly rise … People have worked all their lives to get into a community, and now they’re going to watch it go to hell. Not going to happen, not while I’m here.
These are the words of a man who was sued by the Justice Department for refusing to rent apartments to Black tenants. Donald Trump’s tactics of lies and fearmongering stand in stark contrast to YIMBY values and goals.
Fortunately, Trump’s opponent, Joe Biden, released a far-ranging housing policy platform with the potential to greatly improve housing affordability and access to high-opportunity cities and neighborhoods. While it attracted far less media attention than Trump’s “Suburban Lifestyle Dream” tweets, it deserves a closer look.
Expand direct financial assistance to renters
Biden’s housing agenda takes the needs of renters seriously. Nearly half of American renter households are “rent-burdened,” meaning that they pay more than 30% of their income towards rent. Housing Choice Vouchers (formerly known as Section 8 Vouchers) are the federal government’s primary means for assisting lower-income families with rent. However, the Housing Choice Voucher program is underfunded, which means that nearly 17 million households (three-quarters of all households that qualify for assistance) don’t receive it. The Biden plan would close this gap and fully fund the Housing Choice Voucher program, effectively turning it into an entitlement program like Social Security.
Dedicate $300 billion to affordable housing production
Biden knows we need more direct funding for affordable housing. Federal programs, like the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit and the Housing Trust Fund, along with state housing finance programs, are the primary sources of funding for production and rehabilitation of deed-restricted affordable housing (usually built and operated by housing nonprofit organizations). These programs have been underfunded for decades, which helps explain why most regions don’t have enough homes that are affordable to lower-income households. (Los Angeles County alone needs 500,000 more affordable homes just to meet existing demand.) Generously funding affordable housing production and preservation will help to meet this need.
Encourage multifamily and mixed income housing options
Under Biden’s plan, the federal government would also push cities to encourage denser, mixed-income housing options by making some federal assistance to cities conditional on reducing exclusionary zoning and de facto segregation. Going forward, cities and states that receive Community Development Block Grants, Surface Transportation Block Grants, and other major housing and infrastructure grants would have to embrace zoning reform and legalize more affordable housing.
The Biden plan would also:
- Adopt a “housing first” homelessness policy, which would include funding for over 100,000 permanent supportive housing units and homes affordable to renters with extremely low incomes (i.e. less than 30% of the county median income) within five years.
- Strengthen tenant rights and protections, including a national “right to counsel” for tenants facing eviction, and forbidding landlords to discriminate against Housing Choice Voucher recipients as potential tenants.
To echo the words of the former vice president on Obamacare, the Biden plan for housing is a BFD. If fully adopted, the Biden housing plan would be extraordinarily helpful to lower-income families, especially children: universal Housing Choice Vouchers could reduce child poverty by one-third, improve families’ access to neighborhoods with good schools, and make housing access more stable. These policy changes would also assist middle-income renters and homeowners by expanding the supply of multifamily and missing middle housing, especially in prosperous areas; this would bring down rents and home sale prices, and make it easier to live within a convenient distance of good jobs in vibrant urban centers.
Adopting Biden’s federal housing policies would also take major first steps towards advancing racial justice and undoing past discrimination in our communities, since these policies would make it harder for local governments to exclude people from high-opportunity areas. Biden’s plans have explicitly made the linkage between climate & housing, while Trump poo poohs climate change as a real threat. His platform would represent a bold step in the fight against climate change, helping to shorten commutes, improve mass transit usage, and reduce carbon emissions. Overall, Biden’s plan represents a very different vision for America’s cities and towns than that offered by Donald Trump.
Of course, like any campaign proposal, the Biden plan has room for improvement. We offer these friendly amendments:
- First, as Henry Kraemer from Data for Progress points out, the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit program has significant flaws. It is complex and difficult to administer, it funds less housing production during economic downturns (since it relies on leveraging private capital), and tends to concentrate affordable housing in low-opportunity areas. LIHTC could instead be converted into a construction loan program that directly funds all-affordable and mixed-income housing, as is common in European countries.
- Second, the plan doesn’t address the 1.3 million units of public housing that exist in America today. There’s a nationwide backlog of tens of billions in capital investment needed to restore public housing to a condition of good repair, and an opportunity to fund construction of new, good-quality housing that is publicly owned or owned by nonprofits.
- Finally, the plan is unclear about the criteria that the federal government will use to evaluate local zoning reforms, and whether the federal government or states will determine whether localities are doing enough to reduce exclusionary zoning. As we know well in California, local governments are adept at gaming state housing policies, following the letter of the law but not its spirit in order to prevent denser housing.
So there you have it. On the one side, we have warmed-over racial resentment rhetoric from Donald Trump. On the other, a well-grounded, transformative housing policy plan from Joe Biden.
We know who we’ll be supporting in November.
Thank you to Adam Buchbinder and Anthony Dedousis for their incredible work in drafting this piece!