The Trump Administration recently terminated an Obama-era housing rule that sought to expand federal control over the makeup of America’s suburbs. Trump’s actions—and those of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson—have prompted a debate on the Right between those who think the federal government should exercise more control over suburban planning and development, and those, like me, who do not.
The housing rule, better known as AFFH for “Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing,” was a quiet attempt by the Obama-Biden Administration to spread federal tentacles over American suburbia, using the ample federal funding provided to the suburbs as a means to dictate racial and ethnic makeups, and micromanage the location and construction of businesses, housing, and transportation centers. Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden has a housing plan that takes Obama’s plan even further, eliminating single-family zoning altogether.
The idea is predicated on the notion that single-family zoning—which limits structures built on certain properties to stand-alone homes only—is limiting access to the suburbs for working families by limiting the housing supply and driving up home prices as a result.
Abolish Single-Family Zoning?
The advocates of AFFH on the Right believe that communities must be “incentivized” to “relax” single-family zoning, so that high-density housing can take its place. In their telling, single-family property owners looking to defend their property investment against urbanization are simply “upper-class NIMBYs,” at best, or exclusionary racists, at worst.
This sentiment was recently shared with me by Samuel Hammond, director of poverty and welfare policy at the post-libertarian Niskanen Center, who took issue with a recent piece I wrote on the topic.
I argued that the Trump Administration was right to rescind AFFH—because working families, including African Americans and immigrants, actually want to aspire to single-family homes, as opposed to merely hopping from a city high rise to a suburban one.
“If it’s not NIMBYism and it reflects the preferences of the working class,” Hammond wrote on Twitter, “then why do multifamily dwellings need to be restricted by law? Telling property owners how they use their land on behalf of the ‘collective?’” he continued. “I didn’t know Claremont employed communists.”
The factual inaccuracy that I don’t work for the Claremont Institute aside, it’s a bizarre argument to claim that communities making democratic choices about how they live together constitutes “communism.”
Hammond’s colleague Daniel Takash went on to claim that the meta construct of suburbia is “the product of very explicit racial engineering” and that the property owners who show up at city council meetings to discuss zoning regulations “don’t represent the broader demographics of those communities.”
The people he refers to as not representative of the broader community appear to be “individuals who are older, male, longtime residents, voters in local elections, and homeowners.” The suburbs, evidently, must be rescued by the federal government from the scourge of old-timers who own homes and vote.
These objections are often combined with the claim that the vast federal suburban subsidization has artificially constructed the suburbs in the first place. Single-family zoning would crumble under its own weight, they say, if suburbs had to raise their own money to pay for transportation infrastructure and other services that federal money helps sustain.
In all these narratives, we are told that the true liberty position is either to eliminate the subsidies altogether and let the suburbs crumble in a blaze of unfettered, winner-take-all capitalism, or instead to use that federal money to incentivize the preferred policy outcomes of conservative urbanists—banishing single-family zoning in favor of pod dwellings next to the metro stop.
The Free Market and the Free Suburbs
But this framing sidesteps a central question around the role the federal government has to play in promoting a sustainable citizenry—or, at the very least, policies that the overwhelming majority of suburban communities prefer.
As I laid out in my original piece, statistics tell us that people of all demographic and economic classes are moving to the suburbs to leave behind urban living—not to replicate it. Why should their preferences be ignored?
Moreover, a primary reason many working families leave the cities for the suburbs is for space to raise a family. Indeed, census data tells us that people in the suburbs are more likely to be married with children. Incentivizing and providing spaces for families to grow and develop was, at one time anyway, a key conservative aim.
But such positioning also conveniently oversimplifies the complicated interactions between government and the “free” market. Lots of institutions call themselves “conservative” while supporting government intervention in all kinds of markets: corporate tax breaks, handouts to the energy industry, and defending the entire business model of American tech companies, which is built around a unique statutory privilege. Our free trade policies are less “free” than they are a jumbled mix of policies that preference some industries over others.
So attempting to distill this into a “free market” versus “manipulated market” isn’t entirely accurate. All these markets are manipulated, constantly. The question as it relates to the suburbs is more about whose preferences, ultimately, are reflected in the end—central planners in the government, or those of the local communities?
Ultimately, what Hammond and Takash are arguing for is the right to have the federal government subsidize their notion of suburban development, over and above the notions of the people who actually live in the towns.
Self-Determination in the Suburbs
This debate, then, is really about whose preferences will prevail: the communities who determine together how they want to live, or central planners thousands of miles away?
Communities may not make perfect decisions—and there are all kinds of laws on the books to prevent them from making discriminatory and criminal ones. But when individuals in a community collectively determine both the character of the community they want to live in and the rules for how they want to live together, that is in itself an expression of liberty that deserves protection.
Conservative urbanists want to impose a “corrective” on those community choices, blanketing suburbs with federal incentives and quotas and penalties for those who participate too much—or don’t participate enough—in determining community outcomes. Their policies assign racist motivations to communities in which they don’t live, and know nothing about, to justify imposing their own federal preferences. In their view, destroying the choices local communities have democratically made for themselves is an acceptable price to pay as long as it incentivizes the property values of lots bought by corporate developers.
It’s a one-size-fits-all approach that dismisses the expressed preferences for the lives many working families aspire to live. It also, ultimately, goes against the key aspect of political liberty which allows diverse and differing suburbs the freedom to enact laws that reflect the interests of the people who live there—in other words, people in communities, deciding together how they will live.
Kind of sounds like America to me.