Malign Neglect? Urban Policy in the Trump Era

To paraphrase physicist Niels Bohr, (or maybe it was Yogi Berra), “predicting is difficult, especially when it’s about the future.” One would think even more so, looking at this subject, when it is just one of the many issues that Trump has never put out a position on nor shown any particular interest in. Actually, that might make prediction easier, not harder. Why? It seems pretty clear that Trump doesn’t have much policy bandwidth; in fact, he may be the least policy-minded person to serve as president since Warren Gamaliel Harding.

What that means, I believe, is that when it comes to issues that don’t engage him on a gut level—and are not red meat to his base—he’s not likely to push any policy ideas of his own. Instead, he’s more likely to leave those issues, one of which is urban policy, to the Republicans in Congress, along with whichever right-wing apparatchik or mortgage lender becomes HUD secretary.

First, this means there’s not going to be much urban policy, period. The Republican Party leadership doesn’t care much about cities. Cities are full of Democrats, minorities, and poor people. Programs with broad constituencies, like the Community Development Block Grant Program and HOME Investment Partnerships Program, will probably remain but shrink further; Low-Income Housing Tax Credits may stay under the radar and survive. After all, they’re good business. Modest Obama initiatives like Promise Zones will disappear, and nothing will replace them. Cities have become used to getting relatively little help from the federal government to address their social and economic problems, and they will get even less.

Potential changes to housing policy, however, are more serious.

The big issue is less about affordable housing (although if Congress decides to significantly reduce the number of vouchers in circulation, that could be a disaster for hundreds of thousands of struggling families) than the country’s mortgage system. For the last decade, the mortgage system has been a makeshift hybrid of public and private actors, held together with the fiscal equivalent of duct tape. Everyone agreed that it needed to be changed, but with major policy differences separating the administration, different factions in Congress, lenders, and advocates, nothing was done. That may change soon. Privatizing the mortgage industry, coupled with financial deregulation and the declawing of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau could further starve cities of the capital they need, reducing mortgage access for low- and middle-income urban households, and in low-priced real estate neighborhoods. A less likely but possible alternative could be to go back to the worst excesses of the subprime scandal.

On the big issues that will affect cities’ futures, we shouldn’t expect much. If you start with the premise that climate change is a hoax, you’re not likely to see much point in helping low-lying cities like Miami or Norfolk adapt to something that doesn’t exist. One possible positive sign is strong Republican interest in major infrastructure investment. Trump has called for spending $1 trillion on infrastructure over the next 10 years, but believes that amount will be private money incentivized with “revenue-neutral” tax credits, a highly unlikely strategy. Still, if something like that happens, it may help some cities, but if it predictably favors projects that can support private financing, a lot more money will end up in fast-growing urban areas like Houston or Denver than in the Midwest or Northeast.

The president-elect talked a lot about manufacturing jobs during the campaign, which may have swung a lot of Rust Belt voters to his side. Certainly, a revival of manufacturing, and thousands of new, well-paying factory jobs, would be a great boon for those cities. The problem is, as many of the people who voted for him are likely soon to realize, it’s all smoke and mirrors (interestingly, a wildly unscientific poll on had 91 percent of interviewees answering no to the question, “Do you think Donald Trump will restore manufacturing jobs?”). Sadly, those jobs are largely gone, for many and complicated reasons, and starting a trade war with China won’t bring them back.

So, the “neglect” is pretty clear, but what about the “malign” part? This is harder to predict, but there are some tea leaves to read. There’s an ominous line buried in the Republican platform that reads, “We expect Congress to assert, by whatever means necessary, its constitutional prerogatives regarding the District.” What they mean is that Congress should pass a law “allowing law-abiding Washingtonians to own and carry firearms,” whether the citizens of the District want it or not. This is not an outlier. We’ve seen similar stuff in states that have fallen into Republican hands in recent years like Wisconsin, Michigan, and North Carolina—their tendency to impose their preferences on cities and cut back municipal powers.

A good example came from North Carolina this past spring, where buried in the headline-grabbing bill that mandated same (biological) sex bathrooms, the legislature added a zinger with huge policy implications: “The provisions of this Article supersede and preempt any ordinance, regulation, resolution, or policy adopted or imposed by a unit of local government or other political subdivision of the state that regulates or imposes any requirement upon an employer pertaining to compensation of employees, such as the wage levels of employees, hours of labor, payment of earned wages, benefits, leave, or well-being of minors in the workforce.” Translated: Goodbye to city ordinances setting minimum wage, or mandating parental leave or health benefits.

I suspect that we will see more of this sort of thing at the federal level. Since Congress’ ability to directly dictate city ordinances (outside D.C.) is limited, these provisions are likely to show up as conditions of federal funding, either at the city or state level. You want federal transportation funds? Legalize concealed carry. You want federal education funds? Require same-biological-sex bathrooms, etc.

History has shown that all the talk about less government intrusion, and about the best government being one that’s closest to the people quickly goes out the window—or one might say is trumped—by any policy agenda that stirs the passions of the Republican base.

My guess is it’s likely to be a long four years.

Image: Courtesy of Kevin Jones, via flickr, CC BY 2.0)

Alan Mallach, senior fellow at the Center for Community Progress and the National Housing Institute, is the author of many works on housing and planning, including Bringing Buildings Back, A Decent Home, and Inclusionary Housing in International Perspective. He served as director of housing and economic development for Trenton, New Jersey, from 1990 to 1999, and teaches in the City and Regional Planning program at Pratt Institute.


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