Nolan Gray is a research fellow with the Mercatus Center at George Mason University and a professional city planner.
With housing affordability reaching crisis levels in America’s deep blue coastal cities, zoning reform is having a moment. YIMBYs in high-cost coastal cities like Los Angeles, Seattle, and San Francisco are calling for the construction of multi-family housing in the vast tracts of those cities zoned for single-family homes. What many may not realize is that there’s a rich bipartisan tradition behind these contemporary efforts.
Back in the summer of 1991, the Advisory Commission on Regulatory Barriers to Affordable Housing under George H. W. Bush, headed by then-Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Secretary Jack Kemp, decided to take on local exclusionary zoning—land-use regulations that primarily serve to prevent the construction of affordable housing.
Unlike today’s land-use reform advocates, Kemp, a moderate Republican and former congressman who represented suburban Buffalo, was primarily motivated by the problem of rising costs of suburbs rather than cities. In its final report, the commission called for agencies like HUD to condition their support for local governments on the removal of unnecessary barriers to housing construction, including high impact fees and large minimum floor area requirements. In addition to these federal efforts, the commission also called on states to set clear guidelines for how cities could and couldn’t regulate new housing development, with an eye toward allowing more housing at all price levels to be built.
Most of the commission’s recommendations went nowhere, thanks to Bush 41’s aversion to domestic issues and Kemp’s need to pivot to economic development following the L.A. riots in 1992. But echoes of 1991 can be heard in two new initiatives by Democratic Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey and HUD Secretary Ben Carson. On August 2, Booker introduced legislation designed to rein in exclusionary zoning, which many argue has played a key role in driving the housing affordability crisis. As Richard Kahlenberg explains in The American Prospect, the Housing, Opportunity, Mobility, and Equity (HOME) Act would require that states and municipalities receiving Community Development Block Grant (CBDG) funds develop strategies to ease regulatory barriers to new housing construction.
The recent Carson proposal, unveiled on August 13, aims to similarly bundle into HUD grants an expectation that cities will ease up on overly restrictive zoning. While HUD is commonly associated with housing, the department’s grants are a major source of funding for local infrastructure projects, such as streets, water, and sewers. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Carson pointed to policies such as zoning exclusively for single-family housing in cities like Los Angeles. “I want to encourage the development of mixed-income multifamily dwellings all over the place,” Carson said—language rarely associated with members of the GOP.
So what can Booker—a reported Kemp fan—and Carson learn from their predecessor in attempting zoning reform? The key in the coming months will be for them to remain vocal champions of their respective initiatives. Zoning is too wonky of an issue to gin up its own interest, even among housing affordability activists. In the aftermath of the 1991 report, members of the commission expected support for their proposals to be forthcoming from housing activists, home builders, and civil rights groups. That support didn’t materialize. To head off this issue, Booker and Carson will have to undertake the task of building a bipartisan national coalition around zoning reform—one strong and diverse enough to withstand the dispersed and disorganized forces of local NIMBYism.
There’s also another Democratic presidential hopeful releasing a plan to address the affordable housing crisis: In late July, California Senator Kamala Harris unveiled legislation that would offer a refundable tax credit to renters spending more than 30 percent of their income on rent and utilities. The problem with that approach, critics like writer Jibran Khan at the National Review have pointed out, is that it does nothing to address the long-term constraints on housing supply that are driving up costs, though it may help to ease the burden for renters in the short term. Worse, by juicing demand, such a tax credit might actually allow landlords to raise rents.
In contrast, the Booker and Carson proposals focus squarely on the lowest of the low-hanging fruit when it comes to supply constraints: exclusionary zoning. These are precisely the kinds of barriers that worried Kemp back in 1991. As Harvard economist Edward Glaeser and others have pointed out, exclusionary zoning policies—such as minimum parking requirements, prohibitions on accessory dwelling units in attics and garages, and large minimum lot sizes—are a key reason why housing costs have rapidly outpaced increases in land and construction costs. Beyond affordability, the downstream effects of exclusionary zoning often include racial and economic segregation, with low-income residents blocked from areas with better schools and job opportunities. The Booker and Carson plans hold that if the federal government is going to hand out billions of dollars to states, counties, and cities, the least they can do is seriously reconsider these failing policies.
While Carson enjoys wide latitude to implement changes at HUD, Senator Booker’s proposal ultimately rests in the hand of the Senate’s Republican leadership. With any luck, they will recognize both the urgency of the affordability crisis and the bipartisan pedigree of Booker’s legislation and give it its due consideration. Housing affordability may vary widely locally, but it is a national crisis and it deserves a national response. Nearly 27 years after the Kemp Commission, conditioning valuable federal dollars on an end to exclusionary zoning is an idea whose time has come.