Measures to liberalize land use and zoning regulations are a heavy political lift. The fights most often occur at the local level, where established residents opposed to new developments (i.e. NIMBYs) will use everything but the kitchen sink to argue against development.
YIMBY victories are possible, but activists (many of whom don’t live in the areas to be liberalized due to their unaffordability) have only so much time and energy to fight every neighborhood association, community activist group, or horde of disgruntled homeowners eager to protect their economic interests. For fans of public choice theory, it’s a classic case of concentrated benefits and diffuse costs.
For this reason, it’s helpful to change the venue for zoning regulation from the local to the state level. The failed SB 827 introduced by California State Senator Scott Wiener would have done this in part, and while momentum for reform is growing it’s going to be a tough fight.
Fortunately, Democratic Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Republican Secretary of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Ben Carson are looking to bring out the big guns by using federal incentives to get cities to clean up their act.
[E]choes of [a 1991 report issued by then-HUD secretary Jack Kemp on exclusionary zoning] 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.
Unlike the ill-conceived and counterproductive piece of legislation introduced by Kamala Harris (D-CA) to provide a direct subsidy to those paying more than 30 percent of their income in rent, Carson and Booker’s proposals approach the affordability crisis correctly–by treating it as a supply rather than a demand-side issue. As Gray continues, “the Booker and Carson proposals focus squarely on the lowest of the low-hanging fruit when it comes to supply constraints: exclusionary zoning.”
While those on the left such as Booker don’t have the same reservations conservatives do about federal assistance to local governments, at least requiring deregulatory strings be attached to federal assistance is a bipartisan solution with something for everyone.
For a bonus, you can read a retrospective on the 1991 Kemp commission in our reference library.