Commentary: Elizabeth Warren Recognizes Zoning Restrictions as a Barrier to Affordable Housing

In a newsletter yesterday from liberal NY Times columnist Nicholas Kristoff, he noted, “I started off deeply skeptical of Elizabeth Warren’s candidacy” and admitted he was wrong about her.  What caught my attention though was this line: “Her housing plan, for example, explicitly tries to address something that Democrats sometimes are reluctant to acknowledge: Zoning regulations have pushed up the cost of housing.”

It sounds a little like Senator Scott Wiener.  With Senator Warren emerging as a potential player in the 2020 Presidential Race, I wonder how many Davis progressives were thinking about voting for her but were unaware of her views on housing?

Back in March, Senator Warren reintroduced the “American Housing and Economic Mobility Act,” to “address the nation’s dire shortage of affordable housing.”

The bill addresses what she calls “the underlying cause of the affordable housing crisis” – “the severe shortage of affordable rental homes for people with the lowest incomes.”

Here is a key part of that legislation: “[T]he proposal would create new incentives for local governments to reduce barriers that drive up the cost of housing, thereby encouraging the private sector to do more to address the housing needs of the middle class.”

Senator Elizabeth Warren: “This proposal will attack the rising cost of housing by helping to roll back needlessly restrictive local zoning rules and taking down other barriers that keep American families from living in neighborhoods with good jobs and good schools. After bungling housing policy for decades, it’s time for Congress to make things right and pass my bill.”
“Senator Warren’s bill to address our nation’s affordable housing crisis is monumental and unprecedented. If passed, this would be the first act of legislation since the 1968 Fair Housing Act to redress a century of housing discrimination. While the FHA ended housing discrimination, it did not have a mechanism to remedy its lasting effects,” said Mehrsa Baradaran, Author of The Color of Money.

Diane Yentel, NLIHC president and CEO, said, “Congress should quickly enact this ambitious bill to help end homelessness and housing poverty once and for all.”

We have long talked about the shortfall in housing in California, but research from the National Low Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC) found that, nationally, there is about a 7 million shortage in rental homes for America’s 11 million extremely low-income households.  Of those 7 million, about 1.3 million are in California.

A key provision is this: “The proposal’s new incentives to encourage local governments to address regulatory and zoning barriers that drive up housing costs will make it easier for the private sector to build more affordable rental homes for the middle class.”

In addition, “the legislation would create a new competitive grant program to award communities that have removed local barriers to housing developments flexible funding to address their pressing infrastructure and community development needs and to build and modernize schools.”

While the bill uses the carrot approach to zoning rather than simply requiring its removal, it is not far from some of the proposals that we have seen in California.

The Intercept last summer noted that the original version “also incentivizes states and localities to loosen their racist and discriminatory zoning restrictions.”

Senator Cory Booker’s bill “would also establish a refundable tax credit for renters and incentivize communities to curb their exclusionary zoning rules to increase housing supply.”

“Much of the housing discussion has been about affordability, production, and tenant protections, which are all really important issues,” said Philip Tegeler, executive director of the Poverty and Race Research Action Council.

He added, “What’s so powerful about Warren’s bill is that it aims to tackle all those things, and it also looks at how are we going to structure our society going forward. Fair housing is really embedded in the legislation, and that’s why I find it so creative.”

The Intercept explained that one of the ways they will incentivize states and communities to ease zoning restrictions in order to boost affordable housing supplies is to model a program after the Race to the Top program, the Obama administration’s signature education initiative.

The Intercept explained, “In Race to the Top, the federal government doled out $4 billion in competitive grants to states that adopted the administration’s preferred education reform policies, like lifting caps on charter schools and overhauling teacher evaluations.”

Senator Warren’s bill would take a similar competitive grant approach.  It will enable “states, metropolitan regions, and cities to compete for $10 billion in federal funds.”

Here’s the key: “To compete, jurisdictions must first reform their zoning restrictions and reduce other barriers to affordable housing production. Grant winners can then use the federal dollars to fund all sorts of projects, such as building parks and schools and improving local transit.”

The article also notes: “Often when new, dense housing developments are proposed, residents raise concerns about the overcrowding of schools or increased traffic congestion.”

The senator is proposing to give cities resources to help make housing tradeoffs easier.  By reforming land use policies, the city could access additional money from the federal government “to absorb those new residents more smoothly.”

Philip Tegeler told the Atlantic last September that these zoning laws “limit low-income residents from moving to wealthier neighborhoods” and thus “are one of the main drivers of housing unaffordability.”

The Atlantic reports that the bill “also focuses on the ways housing inequality falls along racial lines.”

Specifically, “it assists populations that federal housing policy has historically failed: formerly segregated African American populations and families whose housing wealth was destroyed in the financial crisis.”

“Under the bill, black families long denied mortgages by the federal government qualify for down-payment assistance, helping many in formerly segregated communities become first-time home buyers,” the article reports. “The bill also invests $2 billion to support borrowers still recovering from the financial crisis with negative equity on their mortgages.”

“Contrary to popular perception, [segregation] has never been systematically remedied,” Mehrsa Baradaran, author of The Color of Money: Black Banks and the Racial Wealth Gap, told the Atlantic.  She advised Senator Warren on the bill.

“We have stopped actively segregating, but these segregation patterns stayed that way,” she said, “and really have been self-perpetuating on their own.”

The bill would “go a long way to remedy the federal government’s pattern of underinvesting in minority populations.”  Ms. Baradaran noted that the communities with a long history of segregation were particularly vulnerable to subprime mortgages and were targeted by lenders and banks.

“These formerly redlined areas were the prime market for these loans,” she said.

The Atlantic also talks to Alexander Casey, a policy adviser with Zillow, who sees the bill as a “holistic approach.”  Senator Warren’s bill addresses both funding shortfalls and local-land regulation.

Mr. Casey believes that Senator Warren’s bill would result in the construction of about 3.2 million new homes over the next decade.  This he called “an ambitious proposal.”

“But then again,” Casey said, “it is a large problem we’re talking about.”

There are skeptics as well.  Jenny Schuetz, for example, argued that the grant program might not have that much impact on zoning laws.  Those neighborhoods with the most restrictive zoning may be wealthy enough not to need federal funding.

“If you’re trying to incentivize some of these communities, you’re going to have to offer them a lot of money,” she said. “There is little incentive for them to participate.”

On the other hand, Joel Griffith, a research fellow in financial regulations at the Heritage Foundation, “believes the grant program, in general, goes too far. Griffith agrees that zoning laws are a barrier for affordable housing, but feels Warren’s bill is overly intrusive, in this and other provisions.”

“We do not believe it is the federal government’s role to be jumping in there and trying to, in effect, almost bribe these local governments into changing the laws by pouring money into their infrastructure,” he said.

While those details are interesting in terms of the specifics of the bill, I prefer to look at a far bigger picture – the changing views of the left on housing.  To me, there are two fundamental points in Senator Warren’s proposal.  First is the acknowledgment that housing shortfalls are an issue of equity and social justice.  Second is the emerging recognition that restrictive zoning is discriminatory and a barrier to housing for low-income people.

How we ultimately solve those problems is somewhat less central than the recognition that they are there.

—David M. Greenwald reporting


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About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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29 Comments

  1. Alan Miller

    The Soviet union solved the housing inequity and affordability issue by en masse building of dank high-rise block gray housing in all of their cities

    1. Tia Will

      Hi Alan,

      Just wondering how you see the Soviet approach as being related to what is being proposed by Warren? I am not attempting sarcasm, I really do not see the connection.

        1. Dave Hart

          I don’t know, Alan.  Does it seem like something needs cleaning up after?  If so, and you think I cleaned it up, then I guess I am.  Is that a bad thing?

  2. Tia Will

    I wonder how many Davis progressives were thinking about voting for her but were unaware of her views on housing?”

    I can only answer for myself. As a Davis progressive, I am not only thinking of voting for Warren but was well aware of her views on housing well before she became my current front runner. I believe in structuring socioeconomic policies first to benefit those who are in need of assistance prior to “lending a hand” to those who are doing just fine on their own. I also believe in the incentive approach to community funding.

     

     

    1. Ron Oertel

      Tia:

      Although one cannot tell from the article, do you think Warren would support developments like the most recent Trackside proposal?

      Same question – regarding Wiener?

      Also, do you see differences between the two of them?

  3. Ron Oertel

    From article:  “The Intercept last summer noted that the original version “also incentivizes states and localities to loosen their racist and discriminatory zoning restrictions.”

    The Atlantic reports that the bill “also focuses on the ways housing inequality falls along racial lines.”

    Specifically, “it assists populations that federal housing policy has historically failed: formerly segregated African American populations and families whose housing wealth was destroyed in the financial crisis.”

    “Contrary to popular perception, [segregation] has never been systematically remedied,” Mehrsa Baradaran, author of The Color of Money: Black Banks and the Racial Wealth Gap, told the Atlantic.  She advised Senator Warren on the bill.

    “We have stopped actively segregating, but these segregation patterns stayed that way,” she said, “and really have been self-perpetuating on their own.”

    Can’t help but wonder what the Warren (and possibly Wiener) would think of the Davis preferential buyer program, in reference to WDAAC.  (The same program that the Vanguard inexplicably had no concerns about, while subsequently citing references such as those, above.)

    I guess when it comes to more development (in any form), the Vanguard is suddenly “color-blind”.

     

     

      1. Ron Oertel

        You’re stating that the David / the Vanguard was concerned about discrimination resulting from the Davis preferential buyers program?  Because that’s not what I recall.

        In fact, I recall a disagreement between David and another commenter, regarding this. (No – not with Rik, although Rik and the other commenter apparently shared similar views regarding the subject.)

        Regarding “appropriateness”, how is it not so – when the article above discusses racial discrimination patterns in housing at great length? (But, apparently only when supporting the “build, baby build” mantra?)

        1. David Greenwald

          The reason I didn’t have a particular problem with the discriminatory aspect of the DBBP was that it fed into the UC Davis pool which is actually extremely diverse. So I wasn’t convinced that the program would make the project any more discriminatory than it already was based on cost and location. You’ll note I was skeptical that the program would pass legal muster and I also criticized the project for building single-family homes.

        2. Ron Oertel

          David:  “The reason I didn’t have a particular problem with the discriminatory aspect of the DBBP was that it fed into the UC Davis pool which is actually extremely diverse.”

          Even if true (and I’m not sure what you mean by “pool”), what does that have to do with the lack of diversity of the city – compared to other, more diverse communities whose residents would have been PROHIBITED from purchasing at WDAAC?

          David:  “So I wasn’t convinced that the program would make the project any more discriminatory than it already was based on cost and location.”

          Sure, what’s another “layer” of discrimination, more or less.  Is that really your argument? While subsequently citing comments regarding discrimination in your article above?

        3. David Greenwald

          I think you are missing a key point here that UC Davis is as ethnically diverse as any population, it’s only 25% white at this point.  And since anyone who attended UC Davis is eligible under the proposed rules, from a diversity standpoint the project would tap into a broadly diverse population.

        4. Ron Oertel

          Again, that doesn’t address the point.  Besides which you’re likely “suddenly” referring to Asians as “people of color” – when it suits your argument.

          Recent graduates are not likely to be eligible to purchase at a senior citizen development, nor would they have built up the resources to do so.

          Folks from other, more diverse cities (who would be in a position to purchase at WDAAC) would have been prohibited from doing so, by the program.

          And, you apparently have “no problem” with that.

          It might also be noted that (unlike residents of nearby, more diverse cities), some UCD graduates may have no desire to establish a long-term connection with Davis in the first place.

        5. David Greenwald

          There are two separate issues here that you are conflating.  The first is the question of the overall diversity of the project and I’m not that concerned about the effect of the DBBP on the overall diversity of the project.  The second point which I think is problematic is the exclusion of non-Davis residents or those with ties to the community.  That I do think is legally questionable and have stated that multiple times.

        6. Ron Oertel

          There are two separate issues here that you are conflating.  The first is the question of the overall diversity of the project and I’m not that concerned about the effect of the DBBP on the overall diversity of the project.  

          So, you’re “o.k.” with racial discrimination against those who have no connection to UCD.  Desipte the fact that few recent graduates (in your acknowledged “sample”) are eligible to live in a senior facility.  And, you’re including Asians as “people of color” to bolster your argument.

          Again, the city is overwhelmingly occupied by Caucasians, and possibly Asians.  Other communities are more diverse, and those residents (consisting of a much higher percentage of people of color – who would likely be in a better-position to actually qualify for a senior facility – compared to your “sample”) would have been prohibited from purchasing at WDAAC.

          You lose credibility, when putting forth arguments regarding racial discrimination if you’re not consistent.

        7. Rik Keller

          In saying that UC Davis is diverse and therefore WDAAC is not discriminatory, Greenwald ignores: 1) the actual ethnic/racial groups that have the least representation (Hispanic, African American), and ignores the analysis I produced demonstrating that the “diversity” of UC Davis students/employees when people of retirement age now (and this eligible for WDAAC) would have been there was incredibly low.

          Greenwald pushed for the discriminatory and exclusionary project, and called the developers “Social Justice Champions”.

    1. Bill Marshall

      Except for the dank part, also saw an approach like that in the Palestinian Authority areas, and in Jordan… not aesthetically pleasing to most, but, basic, livable housing… they often build the first floor (all they can afford without going into debt), but they design it such that the rebar sticks out where they can literally build on the foundation (first floor), later… not a lot of lumber available in the mid-east… much of the housing construction is cinder block and/or concrete… it works, but never would pass muster in Davis as to “appearance”…

      Based on my visit and talking to folk in March/April when we travelled to Israel, the PA areas and Jordan.

      Perhaps we should think about the inherent conflicts between practicality, affordability, aesthetics, resources, energy use, etc.  In engineering, if you have too many boundary conditions, a problem cannot be solved.  Might well apply in other areas, as well…

      Concept of priorities, or triage comes to mind…

      1. Dave Hart

        What does the national “debt” have to do with building housing?  Or maybe I could also ask what does the national debt have to do with any policy that gets bipartisan or overwhelming political approval? To be less obtuse, we could produce the housing necessary by simply building it and “paying” for it out of the same pot of money we used to finance the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan in 2002, Iraq in 2003 or any of the other multi-billion dollar “defense” initiatives in the last 20 years. Very same source of money and probably a smaller amount.

        1. Dave Hart

          Maybe the national “debt” is a subliminal stumbling block for too many in coming up with a solution for solving the housing shortage.  In line with Bill’s idea of too many boundary conditions, maybe the solution isn’t really all that difficult other than finding the political will to make it important.  That seems like one boundary condition.

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