President Trump signed an executive order on Tuesday creating a commission that will recommend ways to cut regulations that stymie new housing construction, embracing an idea shared by affordable housing advocates on the left, and even by Barack Obama.
The specific regulations in the president’s sights, however, include many that will make liberals unhappy.
Over the next year, the new White House council, led by Ben Carson, the secretary of Housing and Urban Development, will study local, state and federal rules that drive up the cost of housing, delay its construction or block it entirely.
The potential list: restrictive zoning and rent control; parking requirements and energy efficiency mandates; density limits and environmental rules; lengthy permitting procedures and labor laws.
That list is a mash-up of some of the prime targets Democratic presidential candidates would like to take on, too — right alongside some of the left’s most prized policies.
In unveiling the effort, Mr. Carson focused less on the specific regulations than the people he said would be helped by unleashing more housing construction: “Americans of all income levels, including working-class Americans such as teachers and nurses, auto mechanics, construction workers, police officers and firefighters whose struggles are sometimes forgotten.”
The National Low Income Housing Coalition reacted by warning that a council focused on barriers to affordable housing could provide pretext to weaken regulations that protect minimum wages, fair housing and the environment. The council will include representatives from the labor and energy departments and the Environmental Protection Agency, all of whom are supposed to consider federal regulations to cut, too.
These diverging interpretations of the president’s announcement point to the strange politics of housing deregulation.
Opposition to new housing — and support for zoning rules and bureaucracies that effectively block it — is bipartisan, particularly among homeowners. But the case for building more housing is bipartisan, too, even if liberals and conservatives often make it sound as if they’re not describing the same thing.
Some liberals see in the web of cumbersome housing regulations an effort to exclude renters, minorities and lower-income residents from many neighborhoods and entire communities, perpetuating segregation. In this view, large-lot single-family zoning and neighborhood review boards are the tools of Nimbyism.
Some conservatives see a tangle of red tape that restricts the construction industry and distorts the market for housing. A conservative ideologically opposed to rules that prescribe how bankers and businesses operate might well feel the same about regulations that say where builders must build and how many times they must defend their plans to the public.
Both camps may be happy to put many of these regulations on the cutting block. But they won’t agree on all of them.
The left and the right are likely to meet on parking requirements, which typically mandate that developers build costly parking garages — of a very specific size — even if tenants might not use them. They are more likely to agree on ending large-lot single-family zoning, which dictates the (large) minimum size of land each house must occupy.
Todd Young, a Republican senator from Indiana, recently introduced a bill, the Yes in My Backyard Act, that would require communities to explain their exclusionary housing policies if they wanted federal Community Development Block Grant dollars. In Oregon, a bill ending single-family zoning across the state passed the Statehouse last week with both Democratic and Republican votes.
But the two sides won’t agree on what to do about rent control (or the right of local communities to enact it). They won’t agree on requirements that buildings meet strict energy standards, or that builders employ construction workers at a higher standard wage.
Communities across the country have increased the number of such rules since the 1970s, adding steps to the approval process, months to project reviews, and new requirements on builders. In some of these areas, it won’t be so simple to tell two kinds of regulations apart: those whose primary goal is to limit new housing and those that, in the service of other goals, make housing more expensive.
“Some things progressives like are raising the cost of development and making housing really unaffordable in some metros,” said Joseph Gyourko, a professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, pointing in particular to high-cost coastal metro areas. “And then some things like large-lot zoning, which you may dislike for your own reasons, are doing the same thing. From an economist’s point of view, if they have the same effect, they have the same effect.”
In broad strokes, there is the potential for bipartisan action. In his 20 years of studying this, Mr. Gyourko said he had never witnessed the bipartisan politics he hears now, from the Democratic senators and presidential contenders Elizabeth Warren and Cory Booker, but also from President Trump and Mr. Carson.
Homeowners are a mighty voting bloc in opposition to these ideas. But there’s something powerful, too — as with criminal justice reform — in unlikely coalitions, when libertarians, free-market boosters, social justice advocates, fair-housing groups, Democratic mayors and Republican senators all land on the same idea.
It’s in working out the details that their agendas may come into conflict. President Trump’s housing council, which is due to produce a report a year from now, could influence whether this conversation is headed toward collision or consensus.
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