Biden’s Housing Equity Mandate Is More Likely To Be a Feel-Good Waste Than a Serious Blow Against Zoning
Biden’s plan to desegregate the suburbs. The Biden administration wants cities, counties, and states that help themselves to federal housing funds to make a concerted effort to desegregate neighborhoods within their borders. That’s easier said than done.
There is, as this proposal implies, a direct historical link between racial segregation and government policy. And that is among the reasons for today’s racial sorting. But there is more going on as well. A lot of racial segregation stems from class-based issues that also often break down along racial lines. And some results from personal preferences. It is, to say the least, hard for a federal mandate to correct for everything from highway locations to individual choice.
As Kriston Capps points out on Twitter, “this is a rule for communities that accept grants from the government. If cities don’t want to follow this rule” then “all they need to do is not ask the federal government for housing dollars.” Fair enough. But all things being equal, it would also be better if locales that do get federal funds don’t have to spend time on fruitless bureaucratic exercises.
And that’s a real danger here. The Biden administration’s rule will require tons of cities, counties, and states to assign staff or hire new consultants to draft “equity plans” every five years. Federal employees will then have to review all these plans (which will also be subject to public comment) and take action if they don’t find them sufficient.
If the equity plans are just platitudes, pie-in-the-sky theorizing, or tinkering with tiny requirements, that’s a whole lot of wasted resources. On the other hand, if they’re attempts at serious social engineering, that brings its own problems.
It’s hard to imagine much that falls outside one of these two ignominious camps—except reforming zoning policies.
A lot of zoning policies—while not outright stating a goal of racial or ethnic segregation—were put in place for explicitly bigoted reasons. And even when that’s not (or no longer) the case, these policies can still have that effect in practice.
So these equity plans could do good if authorities get serious about reforming zoning policies. Zoning reform tends to produce a lot of outrage from a lot of residents, even if it theoretically should attract support across the political spectrum. In theory, this mandate could apply some counterpressure to loosen these rules.
But that isn’t how it’s likely to work out. There is a long history of federal mandates to encourage neighborhood desegregation, and officials—federal as well as local—have a long history of rendering them toothless. Bloomberg News details some of that history here, and Capps explains more in this Twitter thread.
“The Fair Housing Act—passed a week after [Martin Luther King]’s assassination—requires jurisdictions that receive federal funding for development to actively work to desegregate. It’s an (unenforced) mandate known as Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing,” Capps explains. “As housing secretary after the Fair Housing Act was passed, George Romney ordered [the Department of Housing and Urban Development] to reject applications for federal funding from communities that were still segregated and segregating. Nixon overruled him. The mandate has lapsed ever since.”
Nothing fascinates me more than the Secret YIMBY alt-history where Ben Carson issues a far-reaching fair housing rule preempting exclusionary single-family zoning to own the libs.
— ◥◤Kriston Capps (@kristoncapps) January 19, 2023
Former President Barack Obama tried to revive it. “It required localities to conduct fair housing assessments. It was a bit wonky—but before it took off, Trump was elected,” writes Capps. Trump administration Housing Secretary Ben Carson scrapped the Obama rule but was working on a new
Article from Reason.com