The Republican Housing Plan? Localism.

6 min read

Making Sense of Republican Policy Moves

Conservatives often find themselves with two conflicting impulses on housing. They support open markets and property rights and are thus sympathetic to the cause of weakening zoning laws and encouraging construction of different building types. But conservatives also distrust top-down decision-making and wish to appeal to suburban voters in their base, who often oppose zoning changes. This causes the party to give mixed messages on the housing issue, even as prominent Democrats issue formal plans calling to spur home construction. The primary impediment, it seems, is a different attitude within the GOP about which level of government should dictate housing policy.

Focus around the GOP housing stance intensified in July, when Housing Secretary Dr. Benjamin Carson eliminated an Obama-era regulation pursuant to the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule (AFFH). Under the rule, cities that receive federal affordable housing funding must demonstrate a commitment to improve minority housing access. This could’ve included requirements to curtail zoning laws that inhibit home production.

On the surface, the rule seems like standard supply-side conservative policy: loosen regulations to encourage affordability. Yet the picture is more nuanced: the rule would not be imposed on all U.S. cities, only those that receive federal grants. Conservatives generally believe this “strings attached” allocation model amounts to federal overreach, which is one reason they oppose AFFH.

But since then, the Trump administration has implied that it opposes the very goals of AFFH. The President and Secretary Carson co-authored a Wall Street Journal op-ed condemning the rule and the ongoing efforts by state governments to weaken local zoning, framing both ideas as left-wing social engineering. Trump also warned against efforts to increase low-income housing production in suburban neighborhoods, writing in a now-infamous tweet that someone could still live their “Suburban Lifestyle Dream” and “no longer be bothered or financially hurt by having low-income housing built in your neighborhood.”

But the administration has in other contexts not been particularly hostile to the idea of local zoning reform. Last year, President Trump fielded a committee to study the impact that regulatory barriers have on housing affordability and economic productivity. Along with zoning and density restrictions, the administration highlighted the negative impact of rent stabilization, excessive environmental rules and restrictions on building materials. It’s unclear whether much came of the effort; the last activity from the committee was a 2019 request for more data and information. But this at least shows that the Trump administration, despite speaking negatively on affordable housing in some contexts, encourages it in others. The key, again, is about which level of government does it. It seems that Republicans aren’t interested in issuing national plans to spur affordable housing, because to them that is a top-down federal approach. But they don’t mind highlighting the problem of excessive regulation, which local governments can then reform on their own.

On that note, some Republicans at lower levels of government have become involved in this cause. U.S. Senator Todd Young of Indiana embraced the Yes In My Backyard (YIMBY) movement with a bill that would have a similar, but more limited, effect as AFFH. Municipalities receiving Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) money would be required to defend their zoning policies. While the bill would not exclude communities with strict zoning from receiving funds, it would at least highlight causes of housing unaffordability. The bill drew bipartisan support from House Democrats.

At state and municipal levels, there are other GOP efforts to deregulate the housing market – namely by Republicans in mostly Democratic jurisdictions. In Massachusetts, Republican Governor Charlie Baker has voiced the need to add more housing and lower prices. Baker’s preferred course of action has been Housing Choice, a bill that would require cities and towns to allow zoning changes to pass by a pure majority, rather than two-thirds of the vote. This would be a major expansion of state authority in the Bay State, which famously concentrates power at local levels. The Democratic legislature is lukewarm about Baker’s idea – the House passed a version of Housing Choice in its most recent proposed budget, while the Senate did not. The issue has less to do with partisan divides than fear of upsetting constituents, but this hasn’t fazed Baker, despite his support coming largely from the suburbs.

On the other side of the country, San Diego’s Republican Mayor Kevin Faulconer has openly embraced YIMBYism, aiming to legalize denser housing. Like much of coastal California, San Diego has a number of anti-density regulations, and opposition to change has been vociferous. Faulconer has attacked long-standing citywide height limits and worked to house the homeless.

Conversely, Republicans in at least one state have been cool towards zoning reform. Last year, a bill in the Virginia House of Delegates that would curtail single-family zoning statewide was derided on the right, not just by elected officials but media figures. A Daily Caller pundit based in northern Virginia claimed the law was an attack on the suburbs. And Stanley Kurtz, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, and frequent contributor to Fox News and National Review, has made this claim about pretty much any efforts to deregulate suburban zoning anywhere.

All that is to say: Republicans don’t have a formal housing stance, and the issue isn’t national in scope anyway. To the extent they have one consistent message, it’s that the housing market should be deregulated in theory, but not in a way that tramples local zoning powers. This is a contradiction, but then, Democrats are contradictory on the issue too. While presidential hopefuls, like Senators Elizabeth Warren (MA) and Cory Booker (NJ), issued plans for the federal government to take more control on land-use policy, some local-level Democrats opposed housing construction. Census data shows that metros with Democratic political establishments and liberal voting populaces have fewer home permits than more conservative or politically- moderate ones. The Republican Party could prove a counterbalance to this anti-housing status quo. But that would require the party to start paying attention to—and adopting a clear message and plan on—the issue.