The housing affordability crisis impacting the United States today is widespread enough that it is gaining political attention—even during Democratic primary debates. One point on which several Democratic candidates, some current government officials, and housing experts agree is that local zoning laws often serve as an impediment to affordable housing.
However, like so much else, this issue can be highly politicized. Stanley Kurtz, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center said in an article on the National Review Sunday that zoning belongs in the hands of local governments and should not be unduly influenced by federal policy. He also believes conservatives stand to lose some political momentum if they allow the rule to pass.
He took aim at the proposed revised version of the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing (AFFH) rule announced last month by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).
Simply put, AHHF “sets out a framework for local governments, states, and public housing agencies (PHAs) to take meaningful actions to overcome historic patterns of segregation, promote fair housing choice, and foster inclusive communities that are free from discrimination,” according to a HUD fact sheet.
Under the rule, those receiving grants from HUD would have to meet certain fair housing requirements that may require scaling back or changing local zoning laws.
“Although local and state housing regulations are usually passed with good intentions, they often serve as barriers instead, impeding the development and availability of affordable housing without providing residents with a commensurate health or safety benefit,” HUD stated in a newsletter article in spring 2018.
The AFFH is a provision to the 1968 Fair Housing Act. The provision was created by the Obama administration near the end of its term.
HUD Secretary Dr. Benjamin Carson announced his proposed revisions last month.
"By fixing the old Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule, localities now have the flexibility to devise housing plans that fit their unique needs and provide families with more housing choices within their reach,” he said.
Kurtz, though, is not convinced that the revisions are enough. He calls for the full repeal of the AFFH.
“Although it is disguised by vague bureaucratic language, Carson’s version of AFFH still gives the feds the power to control local zoning decisions,” he wrote. “As policy, this is folly. As politics, it is flat-out malpractice.”
Kurtz views AFFH as an all-out “war on the suburbs” and believes that developers will “get busy urbanizing the suburbs” if the federal government attempts to influence local zoning laws.
Kurtz is also concerned with how the law will impact politics. Explaining that he is writing “as a supporter of the Trump administration who very much wants to see the president reelected,” Kurtz says, “there are clashing conservative principles at stake in the battle over AFFH.”
Those “clashing principles” include limiting regulation and leaving power in the hands of local governments. Kurtz suggested that “developer interests exercise significant sway over HUD.”
“Once the feds start using HUD grant money as a lever to kill suburban zoning rules—and make no mistake, that is what Carson’s version of AFFH will do—America’s suburbanites will wake up and there will be political hell to pay,” Kurtz said.
However, Democratic candidates, housing experts, and some within the Trump administration seem to agree that local zoning laws are contributing to the nation’s affordable housing problem.
Federal Housing Finance Agency Director Mark Calabria recently mentioned “burdensome” regulations that preclude new construction, saying, “It is a national problem with local roots. Local governments are often the source of the most burdensome regulations—like zoning and land-use restrictions, building codes, and permitting requirements.” He touched on this topic during a speaking engagement before the National Association of Home Builders.
A handful of Democratic presidential candidates have already laid out plans to combat the nation’s affordable housing problem with plans to incentivize an easing of prohibitive zoning and land-use restrictions that tend to favor larger, more expensive construction.