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Can Cory Booker, Elizabeth Warren, and U.S. Cities End Exclusionary Zoning?

Most U.S. cities have a housing crisis and severe racial segregation. Will a spate of new plans work to solve both problems?
Cory Booker, Elizabeth Warren, the Space Needle.

Exclusionary zoning policies took the national stage again this week when Senator Cory Booker added his housing proposal to the presidential hopefuls' growing catalog. His plans include a tax credit for low-income renters, "baby bonds" to help first-time homebuyers, and a right to counsel for tenants facing eviction. But the most significant proposal is an idea currently reverberating across the country: eliminating exclusionary zoning rules that make it impossible for cities to build the amount of affordable housing necessary to address the housing crisis.

In cities across the country, local density laws keep working-class people out of cities' most affluent neighborhoods by banning the types of smaller, multifamily housing they can afford. Such rules have functioned as tools of segregation since their inception: After the Supreme Court found explicit racial zoning to be unconstitutional in 1917, a federal advisory committee encouraged the expansion of single-family only areas, effectively banning disproportionately lower-income communities of color from these neighborhoods. These policies are one of the fundamental foundations of the housing crisis, contributing to both the seven million-unit shortfall in affordable rental housing across the country and the racial segregation found in 90 percent of all census tracts.

"The tax credit is appropriate in addressing the symptom," says Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation, a progressive think tank. "But the effort to reduce exclusionary zoning gets at a significant root cause of the affordability crisis."

Calls to end such laws have grown louder as rents and homelessness skyrocket: by artificially restricting the supply of housing, exclusionary zoning laws drive up prices for existing housing and hinder the construction of new units. As Booker's plan, published on Medium on Wednesday, notes, "It is estimated that restrictive land use regulations have lowered access to affordable housing by more than 50 percent from 1964 to 2009." To reverse this trend, Booker suggests restricting $16 billion of annual funding from federal loan and grant programs from the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Department of Transportation to cities that eliminate restrictive zoning rules.

The plan builds on Booker's 2018 Housing, Opportunity, Mobility, and Equity (HOME) Act, which laid out a number of ways that cities could become eligible for conditional funding: authorizing high-density and multifamily zoning, removing building height limits, relaxing lot size restrictions, and allowing "granny flats" (small apartments built in backyards or converted garages).

Booker's proposal echoes his competitor Senator Elizabeth Warren's zoning plan: In March, Warren reintroduced her 2018 American Housing and Economic Mobility Act, which similarly proposes incentivizing inclusionary zoning policies through a competitive federal block-grant program.

Interest in such proposals from the federal level is unprecedented. "Zoning is not something one thinks of a presidential candidate talking about," Kahlenberg says. "Federal candidates are appropriately recognizing a groundswell of anger around the affordability issue."

In some cities and states, such policies are well on their way to reshaping the map. In December of last year, Minneapolis, where about 50 to 60 percent of the city was previously zoned as single-family only, became the first major city to ban the practice entirely, instead allowing duplexes and triplexes in every neighborhood. A bill currently making its way through Oregon's state house would increase density in single-family neighborhoods in Portland and every other city in the state with a population over 25,000. Governor Charlie Baker in Massachusetts is backing a bill that would make it easier for towns to loosen their zoning codes.

The success of such policies, even moderate ones, is a new phenomenon. In years past, such proposals at the local level were repeatedly shot down, often by predominately wealthy, white neighborhood groups seeking to keep out new construction and new residents. But as the housing crisis grows ever more acute, zoning reform is generating support loud enough to begin to drown out Not In My Backyard (NIMBY) protest.

But as eliminating exclusionary zoning gains traction, many housing advocates caution that such legislation on its own will make only the smallest of dents in our affordable housing problem. In March, for example, Seattle passed legislation increasing density in 27 neighborhoods. But the legislation will require developers to devote only between 5 and 11 percent of their projects to low-income apartments or else pay a fee, generating an estimated 3,000 low-income apartments across Seattle over 10 years—what one local council member diplomatically referred to as "a very important drop in the bucket." Even in Minneapolis, the single-family zoning policy that has been hailed as radical by onlookers from across the country has generated some skepticism among housing advocates on the ground. In a letter to the Metropolitan Council, the regional planning agency, a lawyer from the local Housing Justice Center wrote that the city's comprehensive plan, which included the zoning reform proposal, "fails to meaningfully address the largest and most serious housing need in the city and in the metro area."

Warren's plan addresses these concerns by proposing comprehensive government support for low-income housing, which would go much further to strengthen the benefits of inclusionary zoning. But the same questions in Seattle or Minneapolis are a crucial sticking point in Booker's plan too. There's no mention of requirements that would tie upzoning to the creation of housing that is affordable for the people who need it most. And without such requirements, or the strong government investment in housing for low-income people, there's a real concern that the policy could be a boon to developers, while leaving many renters struggling as before.

"We don't just have a zoning problem, we don't just have a people-are-spending-more-than-30-percent-of-their-income-on-rent problem, and we don't just have a crumbling federal housing stock problem," says Noëlle Porter, director of government affairs at the National Housing Law Project. "We have all of those problems, and a few others."

Pete Harrison, who teaches at Baruch College in New York City and recently published a report outlining a progressive housing agenda for 2020, notes that, because the housing market doesn't operate according to "supply and demand," reforming zoning law "is going to help, but it's definitely not enough. It's tweaking as opposed to transforming." Without equally strong policies on developing social housing, and providing immediate relief to renters, he says, "It's just wack-a-mole—you're just creating problems somewhere else."