In the hours leading up to the first presidential debate between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton on Monday, the White House attempted to shift the day’s conversation to their report on improving housing development, arguing that zoning laws are dragging down the economy. Officials placed op-eds about the “development toolkit” in national outlets like the San Francisco Chronicle—in the poster city for dysfunctional housing politics—and blogged on Medium about the ways that zoning is “stifling our national economic growth” and “forced working families out of their communities."
But missing from the op-eds and the report was a frank discussion of the root of these problems: racism.
The basic points of the report are fairly uncontroversial. Overly restrictive zoning and other regulatory barriers do indeed limit the supply of new housing in urban areas. But this report ultimately gives academics, policymakers, and residents very little substance because the truly difficult aspects of creating housing affordability aren’t caused by ignorance of "best practices.” The true barrier to more efficient housing development, and ultimately more affordable housing for all Americans, rests on old questions of the proper scale of planning authority and racism.
Neither of these issues are addressed by the White House report, or the accompanying opinion pieces from White House officials. Housing, like policing, education and so many other systems in this country, operates within a system that privileges racism and classism. And until “toolkits” like the one released Monday interrogate how to dismantle those systems, we're only putting a salve on the problems.
The report already received praise from groups like the National Association of Home Builders and magazines like Slate. While there was some criticism (too much praise for inclusionary zoning in the case of NAHB and unanswered questions about pleasing disparate interest groups for Slate), ultimately reviews have ignored the central contradiction at the heart of the report: that wide-scale housing reform is unlikely be done at the local level.
At the heart of our country’s housing affordability problem is local government. Quite frankly, the places that people would like to live, either because they wish to be closer to work or a better school system, are fiercely guarded by local residents who do not want to share their advantages with those deemed unworthy. We call these folks NIMBYs (Not In My Backyard). They have the political clout at the local level to either slow down developments or pass regulations, like minimum lot sizes or banning multifamily development, to keep the unwashed masses out. Yes, there is a growing contingent of pro-development activists (dubbed YIMBYs) who are organizing in cities across the country, but they face steep odds when attempting to overturn decades of policy and politics built around keeping people out. The actual problem here is not regulation or lack thereof, but the insistence on leaving all development decisions in the hands of local governments.
The White House report hints at this essential problem by explicitly calling out the role that local governments play in harming larger, regional housing markets, but instead of recommending the empowerment of regional planning authorities—or truly advocating for state-level housing policies—the report focuses upon largely local-level policy change. Absent a dramatic shift in the political demands of local residents who have historically battled new housing for the sake of protecting their property values and to keep brown and black children out of their schools, such calls do nothing to actually alleviate the political or institutional barriers to housing development.
What is even more frustrating is that we already have an institutional body that can immediately take over regional planning duties: the Metropolitan Planning Organizations. In order for regions to undertake major transportation investments they must submit their plans through their MPO. In reality, though, MPOs often must defer to the local governments they oversee and have little in the way of actual power. The federal government could actually empower our MPOs, re-introduce more stringent housing and environment targets that must be met at the regional level, and go from there. But instead of a sensible and bolder policy like this, the White House doubles down on framing housing development issues as one of simple ignorance rather than one of recalcitrant local governments hoarding precious resources.
The report also mentions how barriers to housing—from minimum lot sizes to outright discrimination against housing voucher holders—enforce class and racial segregation. But the report is noticeably silent on affirmative policies for enforcing anti-discrimination law at either the federal or state levels. The report offers an entire page to housing voucher discrimination, but then punts on the question by once again encouraging local municipalities to change their own discriminatory laws as a way of letting housing markets be more elastic in the face of greater demand.
Thus responsibility for enforcing fair housing laws fall precisely on those actors that the laws were meant to monitor and control. In the same way it is mind-boggling that we allow regular prosecutors to handle unlawful police shootings, it is equally puzzling that we would expect local governments, who we know are the most enthusiastic discriminatory actors, enforce anti-discrimination law.
The White House's report offers a list of nominally useful policies that don't actually solve anything because the real barriers to housing development do not lie in the ignorance of policy alternatives. American planners have debated the merits of regional planning in various stages since at minimum the 1930s. Explicitly racist zoning was deemed unconstitutional in 1917. And we've had the Fair Housing Act since 1968. In other words, we have the historical and policy knowledge, as well as legal authority, to actually address the barriers to more equitable housing development in this country. This problem can only be solved if we would actually look at where the real problem lies: our exclusionary, racist local governments.
Jamaal Green is a doctoral candidate at Portland State University in the Toulan School of Urban Studies and Planning.