A house with a white picket fence and a big backyard might have been a staple of the American dream once upon a time, but if the Biden administration gets its way, the dream could soon be out of reach for millions of people.
As part of his $2.3 trillion infrastructure plan, the Biden administration is pushing local governments to allow apartment buildings in neighborhoods that are restricted to single-family homes. The administration claims it’s a way to ease a national affordable housing shortage and combat racial injustice in the housing market.
Current zoning laws that favor single-family homes, known as exclusionary zoning, have disproportionately hurt low-income people who can’t afford to move to the suburbs, the administration said. Their only choice is living in crowded apartment buildings. Biden’s proposal would incentivize local governments to get rid of exclusionary zoning by awarding grants and tax credits to cities that change their zoning regulations.
While the proposal has had some bipartisan support on Capitol Hill, not everyone is on board.
Critics claim the federal government’s plan would change the landscape of towns and cities across the country and torpedo the American dream.
“The Biden plan’s backers are hypocrites,” former New York Lt. Gov. Betsy McCaughey said. “Biden himself owns a four-acre lakefront home in upscale Greenville, Delaware, where there is absolutely no public housing, affordable housing, or rentals that accept housing vouchers. And don’t expect any to be built next door to the Bidens.”
She added that Biden “has always had a passion for stately homes and swanky addresses, even buying a 10,000-square-foot mansion that once belonged to the DuPont family, of 19th-century gunpowder wealth. Not exactly the sort of housing setup you’d associate with ‘Scranton Joe.'”
Regulating land use and zoning has largely been a function of local government. Critics claim that the Biden administration is now dangling millions of dollars in front of cash-strapped local governments in order to pressure them to change.
“I live in Irving, Texas, or as the leftists in Biden’s administration would call it, sprawl,” Rep. Beth Van Duyne, a Texas Republican, said. “If you live in a home that dares to have a yard, trees, space between you and a neighbor, and you work hard to pay a mortgage, you are likely a target.”
Van Duyne, who was the mayor of Irvine from 2011 to 2017, added that exclusionary zoning is “nothing more than a smokescreen to eliminate single-family zoning and break the burbs.”
“Biden’s desire to eliminate single-family zoning is for one reason, to destroy our suburban neighborhoods as we know them,” Van Duyne told the Washington Examiner. “Democrats are using this Trojan horse of an infrastructure bill to ‘reimagine’ our communities and erase single-family homeownership and locally run schools.”
Van Duyne claims that owning a home is one of the best ways to build and accumulate generational wealth but that in liberal states, “stopping the growth of single-family neighborhoods has already begun to take root.”
Zoning laws were relatively rare in the United States until a 1917 Supreme Court decision struck down laws designed to block black people from buying homes and property in white neighborhoods. The decision prompted local governments to adopt various rules that set minimum lot sizes and prevented building apartment complexes in single-family neighborhoods. Some of the urban areas with the tightest restrictions in place include coastal cities such as New York and San Francisco, according to a 2017 University of Pennsylvania study.
While some states haven’t budged in decades when it comes to deregulation, others are taking a proactive approach.
Earlier this year, Massachusetts Republican Gov. Charlie Baker signed a $627 million omnibus bill that included a “housing choice” measure that changed zoning laws to allow local officials to approve zoning changes with a simple majority rather than a two-thirds plurality. The move is the most significant step the state has taken in five decades toward deregulating its housing market.
“That might seem like a small change, but proponents argue it can break major logjams in getting housing built,” Scott Beyer, the owner of the Market Urbanism Report, recently wrote. “The law represents a win for the growing nationwide movement to get state-level preemption of local zoning policy.”
Efforts to get “housing choice” passed in 2018 failed after some lawmakers thought it went too far while others argued it didn’t go far enough.
In May, the Charlotte City Council took a big step toward eliminating zoning laws that only allow single-family homes that would ultimately make it easier for developers to build duplexes and triplexes in neighborhoods without deed restrictions. Supporters said it would increase the city’s housing supply, but councilwoman Renee Johnson said she opposed the measure.
“I think this has opened up the door and the floodgates for gentrification in neighborhoods like Hidden Valley and other vulnerable neighborhoods, so I voted no,” she said.
The city council will vote on the final plan at the end of June.
Sacramento, California, also took its first steps to eliminate traditional single-family zoning this year. The city council voted unanimously to proceed with a draft zoning plan that would allow up to four dwelling units, the Sacramento Bee reported.
City officials said the move would help with the housing crisis and making neighborhoods with good schools and pristine parks available to those who could not afford the cost of buying a home in the area.
“Everybody should have the opportunity to not only play in Land Park but to live in Land Park,” Mayor Darrell Steinberg said. “That’s the Sacramento that we all uphold, that we love, that we value, and you better believe this drive for inclusion and equity is the driving force of our city, and it is going to continue well beyond my tenure here.”
Minneapolis has also allowed small apartments to be built in residential areas across the city, and in 2019, Oregon became the first state to end single-family-only zoning in cities of 10,000 or more statewide.