Sarah Holder is a staff writer at CityLab covering local policy, affordable housing, labor, and technology.
The president just signed an executive order calling for states and cities to pursue zoning reform. But affordable housing advocates aren’t celebrating.
On Tuesday, President Trump signed an executive order to establish the White House Council on Eliminating Barriers to Affordable Housing Development. The new council, chaired by Department of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson, will “address, reduce, and remove the multitude of overly burdensome regulatory barriers that artificially raise the cost of housing development and help to cause the lack of housing supply.”
In other words: The administration wants to loosen restrictive zoning and building regulations, increase the supply of housing, and bring housing costs down.
At first glance, this sounds like a call to adopt the upzoning prescription that progressive leaders and advocates of the “Yes In My Backyard” movement have been demanding in cities across America to address a deepening housing-supply problem. Minneapolis just eliminated single-family zoning within city limits as a means of increasing the supply of multifamily housing and combating the legacy of racial segregation. Seattle upzoned a few dozen neighborhoods to ease its tech-saturated affordability crisis; California has tried (and so far failed) to push a broad zoning reform bill, SB 50, statewide. Democratic 2020 candidates like Cory Booker, Kamala Harris, and Elizabeth Warren have all adopted different variations on the theme in their presidential campaign platforms.
In his Tuesday statement, Trump implied that the White House recognizes the same stressors as YIMBYs: America doesn’t have enough housing, and exclusionary zoning policies that limit denser construction are to blame. To cut through the red tape that hinders building, the administration and HUD’s new council will study federal, state, and local regulations; they’ll strip the ones they can, and push communities to do the same.
But housing advocates—including those who support upzoning—are not celebrating their powerful new ally. Many are concerned that the White House council won’t significantly alleviate the country’s affordability problem—and they fear it could make it worse.
“They want to be able to say they’re doing something on housing … because voters care a lot about it,” said Henry Kraemer, the housing fellow for the progressive strategy organization Data for Progress. “But they don’t want to do anything that’s going to actively help working people.”
Kraemer has his doubts that the task force will produce any tangible outcomes after its study period. “But if something did happen, my guess would be they’d look into packing a bunch of new density into already low-income communities, use the specter of density to influence [divestment], and call it ‘removing barriers,’” he said.
This gets at a fear shared by other housing advocates: That the way HUD will nudge cities and states to comply with deregulation is by threatening to defund their Community Development Block Grants, a strategy favored by some Republicans, as well as California Democratic Representative Maxine Waters. Since those grants generally support growth in lower-income housing tracts, a White House plan tying them to density could put lower-income neighborhoods on the hook to build faster than their more prosperous—and probably less dense—neighbors.
An early version of Booker’s housing plan leaned heavily on the CDBG grants as sticks, too, before he widened the cash pool to include other pressure points, like transportation and infrastructure funding.
Besides zoning restrictions, the Trump order mentions other regulatory barriers that could be targeted, a long list that is likely to cheer or alarm an ideologically diverse set of interest groups. Among them: “rent controls; cumbersome building and rehabilitation codes; excessive energy and water efficiency mandates; unreasonable maximum density allowances; historic preservation requirements; overly burdensome wetland or environmental regulations; …. tax policies that discourage investment or reinvestment; overly complex labor requirements; and inordinate impact or developer fees.”
The regulatory dismantling Carson has already accomplished in his role at HUD has done more harm than good, said Diane Yentel, the president of the National Low Income Housing Coalition, in a statement. In particular, last year Carson effectively gutted the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule, an Obama-era rule meant to give “local communities tools and guidance to overcome restrictive local zoning” themselves, pushing them to combat the legacy of segregation.
“An effort by this administration to address restrictive local zoning would be welcomed if it weren’t belied by other actions to gut affordable and fair housing in America and by the council’s true intent, made clear by its design,” Yentel said. “Made up of representatives of the Departments of Treasury, Labor, Agriculture and the EPA, the council will likely assist the administration in removing important federal regulations that protect fair wages, fair housing, the environment, and more.”
Yentel also questioned the Trump administration’s motivations in her statement. “It’s an attempt to achieve large-scale deregulation while distracting from other efforts to exacerbate the housing crisis … and gut HUD’s existing rules that incentivize local governments to eliminate restrictive zoning.”
Jenny Schuetz, a fellow in the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution, isn’t ready to dismiss the directive entirely, but also doubts the council will be able to do much. “Because the local politics around zoning is very sticky, bringing more federal influence to bear on exclusionary local governments is a promising development,” she said. “That said, because most regulatory barriers are adopted at the local level, the federal government has relatively few direct levers, especially on the most exclusionary places. It does have a big bully pulpit, which could be helpful.”
That’s assuming the administration is truly interested in bringing housing costs down. “There’s definitely some cognitive dissonance around an administration that has consistently tried to roll back federal housing assistance to the poorest, most vulnerable families for three years suddenly becoming committed to housing affordability,” she added.
As Kriston Capps recently wrote in CityLab, calls to change zoning restrictions haven’t fallen neatly across political lines. Local tenant groups, who swing progressive, opposed California’s SB 50, fearing it would fuel gentrification. Carson tipped his hand as a YIMBY back in August, telling the Wall Street Journal he intended to “tie HUD grants to less restrictive zoning.” And this month, Republican Senator Todd Young proposed his own YIMBY plan, which would again weaponize CDBG grants in heavily Democratic areas to direct deregulation.
Having Trump firmly in the YIMBY ring will complicate these already-tangled politics. NIMBYs who oppose upzoning can now “frame their opposition to density and change as resistance to Trumpzoning,” as Capps predicted last week. By allying himself with YIMBYs, Trump can effectively delegitimize them, says Kraemer. In another sense, however, in acknowledging the strength of the affordable housing movement, the president is cementing its role as a key 2020 issue.
“Smart Republicans see this as a way to throw a grenade into blue states and cities,” said Kraemer. “This is an opportunity for the Trump administration to sully the name of people trying to [upzone] together.”