Five years after the Obama White House released a memo endorsing local zoning reforms as a way to fight displacement and boost the economy, three years after the Trump White House did essentially the same, and one year after Donald Trump himself took an interest in the issue long enough to flip-flop on it and spend several ill-fated weeks making the case for neighborhood segregation, US President Joseph Biden endorsed federal legislation to help legalize inexpensive housing.
“For decades, exclusionary zoning laws—like minimum lot sizes, mandatory parking requirements, and prohibitions on multifamily housing—have inflated housing and construction costs and locked families out of areas with more opportunities,” the Biden White House wrote Wednesday in the fact sheet about their infrastructure plan, the American Jobs Act. (Emphasis ours. Because we’re excited.)
Biden’s proposal, which closely resembles the proposed bipartisan Housing Supply and Affordability Act, would create a “new competitive grant program that awards flexible and attractive funding to jurisdictions that take concrete steps to eliminate such needless barriers to producing affordable housing.”
Here at Sightline, that’s music to our ears.
Momentum for zoning reform has been building for years in both major parties
As Sightline’s housing and urbanism director Dan Bertolet wrote last year, “rewarding cities that welcome new neighbors” is “an idea that’s gaining steam.”
Biden’s is a “carrot” based version of this idea. That’s in contrast to Senator Cory Booker and former HUD Secretary Julian Castro, who have proposed limiting transportation grants to jurisdictions with widespread bans on infill housing, and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who has proposed stopping all federal highway formula funds to any jurisdictions that ban apartments or mobile homes or impose any parking requirements on housing whatsoever. There’s reason to think either of those approaches would have more effect, and reason to wish for a program that incentivized actual housing production rather than just planning processes.
But that’s politics for you—for better or worse, voters tend to prefer creating new things to taking existing things away. And a “race to the top” approach to zoning reform (as pro-housing analyst Salim Furth of the libertarian Mercatus Center has put it) probably does have the benefit of giving jurisdictions flexibility to find locally acceptable details.
In Minneapolis, legalizing triplexes was a way for higher-price, lower-density neighborhoods to do their part in a broader citywide housing reform. In Austin, mixed-income sixplexes on any lot was a political home run. Here in Portland, the winning formula turned out to be both of those things: smallish market-rate fourplexes on any lot with an option for larger, mixed-income sixplexes.
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The Housing Supply and Affordability Act, sponsored by Senator Amy Klobuchar (Democrat of Minnesota), Senator Rob Portman (Republican of Ohio), Representative Lisa Blunt Rochester (Democrat of Delaware), Representative Jaime Herrera Buetler (Republican of southwest Washington) and others, would spend $300 million annually to give federal grants to pay jurisdictions that pursue more zoning reforms like those. The bill would also require policies to “prioritize avoiding displacement.”
In fact, the whole concept is almost identical to the final version of Washington’s own House Bill 1923, sponsored by state Representative Joe Fitzgibbon (Democrat of West Seattle) and passed in 2019 with Sightline’s direct advocacy.
We’re working to help pass a follow-up in Washington State, House Bill 1157, this year. It would take the logical next step and reward jurisdictions when homes actually get built.
State and local reformers are working on this, but they need help
With or without federal action, a wave of zoning reform proposals has been sweeping the nation.
Two months ago, the week of Biden’s inauguration, I wrote this article about reform proposals in Sacramento, California; South Bend, Indiana; Montana; and Massachusetts. Since then, we’ve seen similar measures unveiled and advanced in Tacoma; Northampton, Massachusetts; Berkeley, San Diego, San Jose, and South San Francisco, California; New Hampshire; Connecticut; North Carolina; and (just last night) in Santa Monica, California.
Here at Sightline, we’re particularly optimistic that state-level action (and provincial action, in Canada) can make homes, of all shapes and sizes, more abundant. Housing shortages spill across city borders, after all. Even if one city in a particular region tried to solve its shortage by removing every regulatory barrier to housing, it probably wouldn’t be enough without other cities doing the same. That’s where state lawmakers come in; they have both the motive and the means to address shortages. Oregon and California have been making good progress, but few other states have done much yet. More and more seem to be trying, though.
Removing our bans on duplexes, apartments, and car-free homes is good federal policy and good national politics. It has huge potential to create jobs, reduce displacement, and protect the environment that our long-term economy depends on. It’s great news that the president of the United States is officially interested in it.