Yesterday was an exciting day for YIMBYs (especially on Twitter). Noah Smith, writing for Bloomberg Opinion, praised Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson for his plans to roll back exclusionary zoning. On Twitter, Secretary Carson expressed his thanks for the praise.
ICYMI: @HUDgov is taking on the #NIMBYs. I agree with @Noahpinion that we must look at increasing the supply of affordable housing by reducing onerous zoning regulations. Zoning laws are holding back America’s cities. #YIMBY https://t.co/5K3dVAOd7A
— Ben Carson (@SecretaryCarson) September 12, 2018
But what exactly is Carson planning to combat the antidevelopment forces in neighborhoods across the country?
Many American cities now use zoning codes to prevent or severely limit apartment buildings and townhouses from being built in many residential areas. This blocks poor people, who often can’t afford big single-family houses with lawns. On Aug. 13, Carson proposed requiring that cities that receive federal housing grants reduce their use of exclusionary zoning.
If Carson ends up following through on that idea, it could be a game-changer. It wouldn’t be enough to simply target zoning — rules mandating big yards, or allowing repeated regulatory challenges that hold up construction projects, would also have to be discouraged. But if implemented right, HUD power could be key to easing the country’s housing shortage, and increasing the amount of housing that the typical American can afford.
The proposal is still in its infancy, but it puts Carson ahead of the pack when it comes to proposals to effectively address the housing affordability crisis. Carson’s proposal, unlike Kamala Harris’ proposed rent subsidies or calls for rent control in larger, unaffordable cities, actually addresses the problem by treating housing as an issue of supply.
Neither rental subsidies nor rent control address housing supply, and they would actually make things worse by raising rents and decreasing incentives to develop, respectively.
Of course, Carson’s strategy of withholding federal funds to local governments is unpopular with those on the political left, but it’s some long-overdue tough love. The ability of NIMBYs to forestall development at the local level is well-researched, and withholding funding is one of the few sticks the federal government has to address zoning issues.
Carson’s ability to swing that particular stick may be hindered should Democrats win back the House, but Dems would do well to take his basic idea seriously. Perhaps they would consider using carrots instead of sticks, as the Obama administration did with grants to study the effects of occupational licensing. Nevertheless, making housing affordable is a progressive priority, and instead of railing against developers, the left should strongly consider more aggressive measures to get local governments to clean up their act on zoning issues.