Democrats say they’ll push cities to cre­ate hous­ing

The Fresno Bee (Sunday) - - Insight - BY EMILY CADEI [email protected]­

The Democrats run­ning for pres­i­dent all say they want to help con­tain Amer­ica’s soar­ing hous­ing prices. But some are promis­ing more ag­gres­sive steps to tackle one of the root is­sues: the lack of hous­ing sup­ply.

A hand­ful of 2020 can­di­dates have em­braced pro­pos­als to pres­sure cities and towns to loosen zon­ing laws, which ex­perts blame for a lack of home con­struc­tion. Many res­i­dents and lo­cal politi­cians, par­tic­u­larly those in af­flu­ent sub­urbs, op­pose con­struc­tion of high-rise apart­ment build­ings and af­ford­able hous­ing units in their com­mu­ni­ties.

The fed­eral govern­ment doesn’t have much say over those de­ci­sions, but it does have one source of lever­age with cities and towns: fed­eral hous­ing and trans­porta­tion fund­ing.

Mas­sachusetts Sen. El­iz­a­beth War­ren, New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker and former Hous­ing and Ur­ban De­vel­op­ment Sec­re­tary Ju­lian Cas­tro have re­leased plans that would make some of those funds con­tin­gent on lo­cal zon­ing re­forms.

Min­nesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar said in a hous­ing plan re­leased in July that she will “pri­or­i­tize ar­eas that have up­dated their zon­ing rules when award­ing fed­eral hous­ing and in­fra­struc­ture grants.”

And former Vice Pres­i­dent Joe Bi­den touched on the is­sue in a pro­posal to com­bat cli­mate change he rolled out in June, say­ing he sup­ported “al­ter­ing lo­cal reg­u­la­tions to elim­i­nate sprawl and al­low for denser, more af­ford­able hous­ing near pub­lic tran­sit.” Bi­den’s cam­paign con­firmed with McClatchy that us­ing fed­eral grants as in­cen­tives “are def­i­nitely on the ta­ble.”

Booker has pro­posed the most wide-reach­ing set of in­cen­tives to nudge cities to­ward build­ing denser, cheaper hous­ing. In a blog post, he said he’d tie el­i­gi­bil­ity to bil­lions of dol­lars in grants for road and rail projects to “lo­cal gov­ern­ments de­mon­strat­ing progress to­wards re­duc­ing bar­ri­ers to af­ford­able hous­ing.”

Cas­tro says he would tie Com­mu­nity De­vel­op­ment Block Grants, af­ford­able hous­ing pro­grams like Hous­ing In­vest­ment Part­ner­ship Pro­gram and un­spec­i­fied trans­porta­tion grant fund­ing to changes in zon­ing laws.

War­ren prom­ises to cre­ate a new $10 bil­lion grant pro­gram for in­fra­struc­ture, parks and schools. Cities and states would only be el­i­gi­ble if they over­haul their lan­duse rules “to al­low for the con­struc­tion of ad­di­tional well-lo­cated af­ford­able hous­ing units.”

Hous­ing pol­icy ex­perts widely agree that re­stric­tive zon­ing laws are a big rea­son why hous­ing sup­ply has not kept up with de­mand na­tion­ally.

That’s par­tic­u­larly true in Cal­i­for­nia. “Most of Cal­i­for­nia’s most pop­u­lous cities and most af­flu­ent sub­urbs are just not build­ing up hous­ing,” Brook­ings In­sti­tu­tion Fel­low Jenny Schuetz told McClatchy ear­lier this year. “They’ve been un­der-build­ing hous­ing for about 30 years now.”

Schuetz, how­ever, has raised ques­tions about whether ty­ing fed­eral grants to zon­ing re­forms will have the im­pact some politi­cians are promis­ing. As she pointed out in a 2018 Brook­ings anal­y­sis, Com­mu­nity De­vel­op­ment Block Grants (CDBG), which are dis­trib­uted by the Depart­ment of Hous

ing and Ur­ban De­vel­op­ment, are pri­mar­ily tar­geted at larger, poorer com­mu­ni­ties.

“Few of the most exclusive com­mu­ni­ties re­ceive CDBG en­ti­tle­ment fund­ing,” she noted, mean­ing they would not be mo­ti­vated to change their laws by threats to cut off that fund­ing.

Ty­ing sur­face trans­porta­tion fund­ing to zon­ing laws could have more of an im­pact. As a re­cent re­port on the news site Curbed high­lighted, vir­tu­ally all lo­cal and state govern­ment in­fra­struc­ture projects rely on some fed­eral funds. Cal­i­for­nia is sec­ond to only Texas in terms of the amount of Sur­face Trans­porta­tion Block Grants it re­ceives from the fed­eral govern­ment.

But even Cal­i­for­nia, which has some of the high­est rents and home prices in the coun­try, has had trou­ble nav­i­gat­ing the pol­i­tics of zon­ing and de­vel­op­ment. Of­fi­cials in the state have ac­knowl­edged the need for more home build­ing, but the most sweep­ing state-level pro­posal to ad­dress that is­sue, a bill to over­rule lo­cal zon­ing re­stric­tions on apart­ment and mul­ti­fam­ily hous­ing con­struc­tion, died in the Cal­i­for­nia Leg­is­la­ture ear­lier this year.

The bill faced stiff op­po­si­tion from many lo­cal of­fi­cials, who de­cried it as a power grab. Many home­own­ers, es­pe­cially in af­flu­ent ar­eas, also op­posed it, ar­gu­ing it would dis­rupt the ex­ist­ing char­ac­ter of their com­mu­ni­ties. Oth­ers wor­ried about gen­tri­fi­ca­tion and dis­place­ment.

Given those fraught pol­i­tics, pres­i­den­tial can­di­date and Cal­i­for­nia Sen. Ka­mala Har­ris has sought to side­step the zon­ing dis­cus­sion, fo­cus­ing her hous­ing pro­posal on help­ing low-in­come renters.

Har­ris’ Rent Re­lief Act, which she re-in­tro­duced in the Sen­ate in April, would cre­ate a monthly re­fund­able tax credit for house­holds whose hous­ing costs ex­ceed 30 per­cent of their in­come, in­clud­ing rent and util­i­ties. A num­ber of other can­di­dates have pro­posed sim­i­lar cred­its and other pro­grams to help renters.

Caro­line Danielson, pol­icy di­rec­tor and se­nior fel­low at the Pub­lic Pol­icy Institute of Cal­i­for­nia, told McClatchy that’s “a sen­si­ble pol­icy” in Iowa, a crit­i­cal 2020 pri­mary state, and other parts of the coun­try where hous­ing sup­ply is keep­ing up with de­mand.

But “in a place like Cal­i­for­nia, where we have a hous­ing sup­ply crunch,” pouring more money into the rental mar­ket with­out ad­dress­ing the sup­ply prob­lem would likely start “a vi­cious cy­cle and not solve our prob­lems,” Danielson warned.


Cal­i­for­nia Sen. Ka­mala Har­ris, shown at a Demo­cratic Party event in New Hamp­shire Sept. 7, is fo­cus­ing her hous­ing pro­posal on help­ing low-in­come renters. Her pro­posed Rent Re­lief Act would cre­ate a monthly re­fund­able tax credit for house­holds whose hous­ing costs ex­ceed 30 per­cent of their in­come.

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