Kriston Capps, Bloomberg, July 5, 2022
In his time in office so far, President Joe Biden has tried to address the stubborn US housing crisis by fighting for more money. The White House worked to speed up the release of tens of billions of dollars in emergency pandemic rent relief, federal dollars that are now mostly spent. Biden and allies also negotiated tens of billions more in support for public housing and rental vouchers, although these funds were ultimately blocked in Congress.
Now, with inflation high and apartment vacancies at record lows, new spending is off the table. So the White House has pivoted to a different strategy: expanding the supply of available homes.
At the core of this housing supply action plan is a federal push to budge local zoning codes that restrict or forbid apartments across vast swaths of the country. Strict zoning codes allow affluent communities dominated by single-family homes to exclude the kinds of multifamily housing that would expand access to amenities and opportunities in these neighborhoods. Nixing these rules won’t make cheaper apartment buildings spring up overnight, but it’s a necessary first step to expand the supply of homes, especially where they are most needed.
Balancing America’s lopsided housing markets — where wealthy neighborhoods block new housing while poorer places shoulder churn and displacement — means rethinking the codes that allowed these patterns to take hold. To accomplish this, the White House is looking to see if it has more leverage with city and county governments than it found with congressional lawmakers. And as it has on other issues, the administration is promising to bring what it describes as an “all-of-government approach” to the problem.
While details remain to be seen, it’s already clear that the task before the administration is daunting. Unlike other circumstances that make housing scarce, like the labor shortage, zoning is a structural problem, one that might require deep-state thinking (and multiple presidential administrations) to solve. What the plan could use is a single bureau that will outlast Biden’s time in office — a top administrator responsible for tackling a challenge that touches virtually every city and county across the country.
The White House just might need a zoning czar.
A federal zoning office could be a body like the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, which was established (by statute) in 1987 to coordinate efforts to address homelessness across some 19 different federal agencies. Housing affordability, like homelessness, touches too many different communities to be situated entirely under one department. Solving exclusionary zoning will require nimble, silo-busting thinking from across agencies devoted to housing, transportation, financing, veterans, rural and tribal communities and even the environment. As it stands, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development doesn’t have a task force assigned to help state and local governments break down exclusionary barriers to new housing. In fact, HUD is missing key staffers with relevant experience, since some of Biden’s nominees have yet to be confirmed by the Senate.
Gaps in the org chart notwithstanding, there’s an opportunity for the federal government to think bigger. Exclusionary zoning is one of three factors identified by the White House as culprits in soaring housing costs and limited supply. Improving financing options for affordable housing and sorting out kinks in the supply chain are the two other ways the Biden administration aims to ease the housing crisis, as National Economic Council director Brian Reese outlined in a recent op-ed. Those fixes are relatively doable compared to zoning.
Since the federal government has no authority over local zoning codes, its tools are limited to carrots or sticks to encourage cities and counties to adopt reforms. To ease zoning rules specifically, the Biden administration has identified $6 billion in incentives for local governments.
Meanwhile, the anti-zoning cause really does have bipartisan backers: Indiana Senator Todd Young, a Republican, has led efforts in Congress to push communities to drop discriminatory zoning codes, for example. A bipartisan interagency council or task force might be able to help circumnavigate these predictable obstacles to routine staffing and governance, through the Biden era and beyond.
One task for such an office might be to get a handle on the scale of the problem. What does a detailed atlas of exclusionary zoning in America look like? A somewhat parallel effort to assess patterns of segregation was begun under the Obama administration, but it was canceled in dramatic fashion by President Donald Trump before it could take off. Biden has pledged to continue this work of affirmatively furthering fair housing. While exclusionary zoning must be understood as a racial justice concern, it is also a matter of regulatory burdens that limit business, growth and freedom of opportunity. A zoning czar could frame it both ways.