On Monday, President Trump announced that he plans to kill the Obama-era Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing (AFFH) rule, which could have required suburbs to change single-family zoning to allow multifamily housing. This rule had been written by housing activists to make housing more affordable, even though there was no evidence that single-family zoning made housing less affordable or that abolishing it would fix the problem.
“Far-left Washington bureaucrats,” Trump said, “are absolutely determined to eliminate single-family zoning, destroy the value of houses and communities already built, just as they have in Minneapolis and other locations. …Not going to happen, not while I’m here.”
The truth is that supporters of the rule have a hidden agenda: to stop urban sprawl, even though measures to stop sprawl are the real cause of housing affordability issues. This can be seen in the housing plank of Biden’s campaign platform, which calls for “eliminat[ing] exclusionary zoning policies and other local regulations that contribute to sprawl.” In fact, it is sprawl that keeps housing affordable, and it is only in urban areas that have tried to stop sprawl that housing has become unaffordable.
Critics say that Trump is merely playing politics, and it certainly is peculiar that he would wait three-and-a-half years after his inauguration to announce that he would kill this policy. However, under Secretary Ben Carson, the Department of Housing and Urban Development formally stopped enforcing this policy in 2018, so Trump’s announcement is not really a new administration position.
The rule itself is fairly innocuous, only requiring cities and counties that accept federal housing funds to divulge any policies they have that might make housing more expensive. Honestly administered, this would force counties around Los Angeles, Denver, San Francisco, Washington and other expensive cities to admit that their growth boundaries and similar growth-management strategies are the cause of high housing prices. Once identified, other rules would have kicked in to require that those policies be changed.
But no one expected the policy to be honestly administered under the Obama or would-be Biden administrations, which focused on single-family zoning as the cause of high housing prices because they object to low-density sprawl. This means that fair-housing policy is being abused by those whose real goal will make housing even more unfair.
At least some officials in Colorado recognized this. In 2016, commissioners in Douglas County turned down federal housing grants, in part due to AFFH strings, citing “unreasonable, unachievable, ill-conceived” rules attached to the money. Earlier, the Town of Castle Rock turned down becoming its own “entitlement community” for federal housing dollars, citing overreaching rules.
A few weeks ago, the National Review published an article by Stanley Kurtz saying that Biden wants to “abolish” the suburbs. In other words, Biden plans to continue the Obama-era policies that Kurtz documents in his book, Spreading the Wealth: How Obama is Robbing the Suburbs to Pay for the Cities. It may be that the media blitz that followed Kurtz’s article is what led Trump to make his announcement.
Americans of all incomes and races dream of owning and living in their own single-family homes. The Biden housing policies would turn many if not most Americans into second-class citizens, unable to afford single-family homes and unable to benefit from homeownership. Trump is right to want to kill these policies.
Randal O’Toole is a land-use and transportation policy analyst. A version of this article originally appeared in his blog, TheAntiplanner.