Housing equity has recently received a significant boost in profile. The introduction of housing policy bills by senators Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker, and Kamala Harris within roughly two months of each other marked a stark elevation from the recent level of attention paid to zoning policy, which had previously been the domain of state and local officials and advocates—and often was a niche discussion even at the local level. The entrance of such prominent federal legislators into the conversation may prove to be a turning point in the burgeoning contemporary movement for housing equity. While these bills are a step forward from the thus-far mixed success at the local level, they introduce a new partisan dynamic into the national housing debate, particularly in the newly split Congress. How these three senators navigate the complicated intersections of national and local housing politics and partisan allegiances could prove key in addressing the housing crisis.
As TCF senior fellow Richard Kahlenberg has documented for The Century Foundation, policy momentum to both address the cost of housing and to fight segregation in American cities has grown at the state and local level in recent years. These efforts have focused on exclusionary zoning, or policies that limit the amount and types of residential buildings that are allowed to be built—limits which raise rents by artificially capping housing supply and increase segregation by effectively designating entire neighborhoods only for those who can afford to buy a single-family home. The bills introduced by Harris, Booker, and Warren all aim to address the affordability side of the crisis, while Booker and Warren’s bills take on the segregating effects of exclusionary zoning as well.
It is no coincidence that Kahlenberg highlighted the home states of Harris and Warren—California and Massachusetts, respectively—as hotbeds of housing and zoning advocacy. These states are at the center of the affordability crisis, ranking third and sixth in the National Low Income Housing Coalition’s 2017 ranking of most expensive states for rental housing. Booker’s home state, New Jersey, ranks seventh. These senators are responding to the same forces that have led to a surge in housing activism at the state and local level: a combination of large urban centers with an increasingly squeezed renter class and an otherwise progressive political base.
Progress Thus Far at the State and Local Level
While these local efforts have made significant progress, they have also faced setbacks. California’s S.B. 827, the most high-profile zoning bill in the recent legislative session, was defeated in committee, for example. The state did pass a package of fifteen other housing bills that were hailed “a sea change” for housing in the state, but those measures are just a start in addressing the crisis.
In New Jersey, while the state legislature is hosting a sometimes-heated series of hearings on new housing policy, a judge’s ruling in March marked a step forward in updating the state’s Mount Laurel doctrine, which requires localities across the state to build enough affordable housing to keep up with demand. This progress is similarly mixed: the ruling “is a victory for lower-income and minority families across New Jersey… The exclusionary policies that will fall as a result of this ruling harm our whole state, especially African American and Latino communities,” Kevin Walsh, executive director of the Fair Share Housing Center, said at the time. Many of the settlements that followed the ruling, however, “do not require municipalities to build a single home.”
In Massachusetts, a bill that would make it easier for localities to ease zoning requirements has stalled at the state level, but a group of mayors in the Greater Boston area has pledged to build enough new housing across their jurisdictions to keep up with the region’s population growth. However, they have left the details of such construction up to individual municipalities, which poses its own set of challenges.
State legislators in Connecticut, South Carolina, and Massachusetts similarly have introduced bills that would incentivize looser zoning restrictions at the city level or require cities to address exclusionary zoning laws of their own.
In each of these instances, advocates are navigating the different carrots and sticks that various levels of government are able to use to allow—and build—more and different types of housing. While progress has been made, especially at the state level, the challenge of localities ultimately approving changes remains an issue. Still, even the current level of change “would have been unthinkable” just a few years ago, as California YIMBY leader Brian Hanlon told Kahlenberg in April.
These advocates can hope that the elevation of housing and zoning policy to a national stage will form a virtuous circle and boost their local efforts. While Senators Booker, Harris, and Warren are responding to local activism and crafting policy for their state constituents, their national political profiles also help to elevate housing policy as an issue beyond their states. As Shamus Roller, executive director of the National Housing Law Project, told The Hill, “the bills show that every Democratic presidential candidate will have to include addressing housing issues as part of their platform.”
As with other high-profile national issues such as health care and education, elevation to a national stage can create dueling approaches to a common problem for politicians and their supporters to choose from (for example, the debate in the health policy sphere between “Medicare for All” and a public option). In the case of housing, the three proposals put forward by Harris, Warren, and Booker take different policy design approaches that other national politicians might follow.
Senator Harris’s proposal takes the simplest approach: giving people who spend too much of their income on rent a tax credit to help. (Her bill defines “too much” as over 30 percent of income for those who make under $100,000 a year, or $125,000 in high-rent areas.)
In a newly split Congress, with Democrats controlling the House while Republicans control the Senate, prospects for meaningful policy efforts are dim—but if there is a policy area where progress could be made, housing is a strong prospect.
Senator Warren’s bill takes a supply-side, rather than consumer-side, approach, incentivizing localities to loosen exclusionary zoning codes with a block grant program. She also takes on the financial side of housing segregation by updating the Community Reinvestment Act to provide federal assistance for loans and mortgages in formerly redlined neighborhoods, which would help close the racial wealth gap in addition to integrating neighborhoods, and by investing in construction of new affordable housing, with specific equity-oriented funds for housing in rural and Native communities.
Senator Booker’s bill combines the two approaches. He includes a similar tax credit to Harris’s bill, though he uses a different income measure, but he also tackles the other side of the twin pillars of the housing crisis—affordability and segregationary zoning—by incentivizing municipalities to dismantle exclusionary zoning policies. Rather than creating a new fund for financial incentives, as Warren does, Booker would leverage Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) funds. Speaking about the bill, Booker explicitly links it both to the affordability challenge and to the way that local exclusionary zoning policies drive segregation by race and class. (The bill would require localities to have a strategy to develop more affordable housing in order to receive Community Development Block Grant funding; the strategy options that the bill suggests read as an anti-exclusionary zoning activist’s wish-list: authorizing high-density and multifamily zoning, removing height limits, relaxing lot size restrictions, allowing “granny flats,” and more.)
Paths for Progress at the Federal Level
In a newly split Congress, with Democrats controlling the House while Republicans control the Senate, prospects for meaningful policy efforts are dim—but if there is a policy area where progress could be made, housing is a strong prospect. Though Harris, Warren, and Booker are all Democrats, housing politics at the local level has not hardened into partisan opposites, and the effort to dismantle exclusionary zoning policies has gained a few high-profile national Republican backers.
At the local level, the emphasis on zoning policy within primarily Democratically-governed cities has created intra-party conflicts, rather than a partisan split, and has created some nontraditional cross-party coalitions. Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker, a Republican, has worked with Democratic state legislators and mayors to take on exclusionary zoning in his state. California YIMBY leader Brian Hanlon has emphasized the cross-party and -region appeal of his organization’s efforts, telling Vox:
A lot of folks who represent more exurban areas, Inland Empire and parts of the Central Valley, they’re going to love this bill, even though it’s not going to allow more homebuilding in their areas. I spoke with one member in the legislature who just said, “I am sick and tired of these hypocritical, rich coastal liberals talking this good game on the environment, passing tax breaks for their rich constituents to buy Teslas, while not building any housing in their district. They’re displacing their middle-income people to my district, where they’re now driving an hour-and-a-half or two hours each way to get to work.”
Supply-side zoning reforms also have adherents among national conservative voices—analysts at the Cato Institute and American Enterprise Institute have urged loosening land-use restrictions, for example—and a bipartisan group of senators has backed an Affordable Housing Task Force. Notably, Ben Carson, the current secretary of housing and urban development, weighed in on Twitter recently, to mixed responses amongst the blue-state and -city core of the movement.
But this bipartisan support at the national level could carry downsides at the local level. If YIMBY policies became associated with the Trump administration, they would face a much steeper slope locally in places like California, Greater Boston, and urban parts of New Jersey—where actual zoning changes need to get approval. Local housing activists are unlikely to embrace Carson both because of his role in the Trump administration and because his own department is seeking to “streamline” the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule, as defined by the Obama administration’s HUD in 2015. The department’s notice of a change was broadly denounced by anti-segregation and racial equity advocates; TCF fellow Paul Jargowsky wrote in his public comment that the 2015 rule was “the first step towards more rational development patterns that reduce economic disparities between cities and suburbs and… [away from] the exclusionary development patterns that have devastated communities, exacerbated racial conflict, and undermined the American ideal of equality of opportunity.” Similarly, Jesse Van Tol, CEO for the National Community Reinvestment Coalition, emphasized that the AFFH rule did not actually encourage exclusionary zoning policies, telling CityLab “we’re concerned that HUD is taking action to remove regulations, while not meaningfully addressing America’s deep problems of segregation and inequality.”
For the scale of change that the current housing crisis requires, a broader political tide that inspires local leaders to approve—and build—new housing will be necessary.
The path forward for these Congressional proposals then, is fraught: if the bills are going to move forward, they must gather enough support within the Democratic Party to pass in the House—not a sure thing, given the entrenched political power that homeowners have, regardless of partisan background. On the left, these senators must navigate support for different aspects of each proposal: tax credits for individuals struggling with rent or mortgage payments, grants for municipalities that get rid of exclusionary zoning codes, and investments in building new affordable housing each address the housing crisis in different ways, and have different political constituencies. In the Senate, Republicans are less likely to support the tax credit portion of the bills, while Republican leaders may be reticent to offer any cooperation—even on policies they might otherwise support, like reducing exclusionary zoning limitations—to Democratic politicians seen to be in the running for the 2020 presidential race.
Additionally, all of these machinations run up against the reality that ultimately, cities and counties are where nearly all zoning restrictions are administered, and actually creating new housing, affordable or otherwise, is significantly more difficult without local support—which can be onerous, if not impossible, to garner in many circumstances. As analyst Jenny Schuetz has written, the municipalities with the worst exclusionary zoning policies tend to be wealthier, and thus less reliant on federal funding under HUD’s jurisdiction, which could undercut the incentives that Secretary Carson and Senator Booker have proposed. (Senator Warren’s proposal attempts to insulate itself from this problem by providing new funds for more flexible uses, explicitly intended to appeal to wealthier suburban neighborhoods.)
Despite that, the national movement for housing equity could benefit even if these proposals do not proceed in the 116th Congress. These bills, and their different approaches to exclusionary zoning, would likely be moderately effective at addressing exclusionary zoning policies. But for the scale of change that the current housing crisis requires, a broader political tide that inspires local leaders to approve—and build—new housing will be necessary. In that sense, the introduction of these bills is a key step to build the necessary tide of energy to address the current housing crisis.
A national movement toward housing equity, both for affordability and against segregation, can accomplish what piecemeal federal and state policies can not, and inspire local action to commit to more housing in a systemic way, rather than on a project-by-project basis. Senators Harris, Warren, and Booker’s entry into this conversation—along with their considerable political skill and national profiles—should be a welcome sign for housing advocates across the country.