Say It Ain’t So, Joe: Biden’s Ill-Advised Plan to Eliminate Exclusionary Zoning

A counterintuitive argument contends that from a housing justice perspective, the Biden administration's attack on exclusionary zoning is imprudent.

Exclusionary zoning: image shows sign advertising "Country Club District"
Photo from the State Historical Society of Missouri, via Housing.Wiki

Joe Biden is now the 46th president of the United States. I join many, likely most, of those in the community of scholars and reflective practitioners concerned with the sorry state of American housing policy in saying “good riddance” to our former president. And breathing an enormous sigh of relief.

YIMBYs, as well as many advocates for housing justice, have cheered a key provision in Biden’s housing plan that targets “exclusionary zoning” (EZ) for elimination. EZ, according to his plan, must go because it “perpetuate[s] discrimination” that “for decades [was used] strategically … to keep people of color and low-income families out of certain communities.”

In a recent article in Urban Affairs Review (UAR)—under the Strangelovian title “Rethinking Exclusionary Zoning or: How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love It”—I counterintuitively contended that, from a housing justice perspective, the attack on EZ is imprudent. In my choice of title I was, as I said at the outset of the article, of course being “deliberately provocative and more than a bit facetious.” Overly restrictive zoning can certainly be a source of harms. Rather than “love” EZ, my central claim was that we should simply come to accept it—and thus stop worrying about it so much compared to other much more virulent and insidious forces that militate against housing justice in drastically more significant ways.

UAR editor Jered Carr solicited responses from three smart housing experts with contrasting viewpoints—Katherine Levine Einstein, Edward Goetz, and Rolf Pendall. These, along with a reply from me, will appear in print just as the new Biden administration, with its plan to eliminate EZ in hand, assumes office. To mark the occasion, Shelterforce invited me to revisit my argument here.

I contend that the effort to eliminate EZ—what I dub the Anti-EZ Project—embraces a worldview whose actualization would be far more detrimental to the cause of housing justice (and social justice more broadly) than the actual impacts of EZ. While it is clear that EZ measures often (though not always) both reflect and perpetuate the ubiquitous racism and white supremacy that profoundly corrupt the promise of America, the project to eliminate them inflicts a greater degree of racialized suffering upon those disadvantaged by both class standing and skin color. In short, the Anti-EZ cure is worse—much worse, in fact—than the EZ disease.

Why? My argument boils down to this: The Anti-EZ Project seeks to usurp governmental (regulatory) control of local land use via the imposition of greater market-based allocation (sometimes called “neoliberalism”). And it does so especially by weakening the ability of inhabitants to determine democratically how urbanized spaces are “produced” (as embodied by the Right to the City ideal asserting “that everyone … not only has a right to the city, but as inhabitants, have a right to shape … design … and operationalize an urban human rights agenda [around these spaces]).”

As I say in my original article and the Urban Affairs Forum follow-up, “my findings might be hard to swallow for many inculcated by more than a half century of writing calling out EZ for severe condemnation (a list that includes close colleagues whom I greatly respect).” This is a condemnation, I should add, that has been supercharged of late by the rise of the YIMBY movement and the wildly popular, even if perhaps deeply flawed book, The Color of Law by Richard Rothstein. So, for all who are understandably incredulous, I write here with an invitation to read my full Urban Affairs Review articles, asking only that you do so with an open, level-headed mind, given that discussions of EZ among housers normally resemble an Orwellian exercise in the Two Minutes Hate.

I sketch some of the salient points below. This sketch is fragmentary and should be understood as such. For the full discussion of my views, read the full article.

Some Considerations

Let me begin by pointing out upfront that part of the reason the Anti-EZ Project is so pernicious—and why my claims seem almost jarring—is that it deceptively focuses on the image of a bunch of rich, privileged (mostly white) homeowners walling themselves off from the encroachment of poorer people (often of color). All of us deeply committed to housing justice rightly find such an image morally vile. Our visceral impulse, in turn, is to want to stick it to these excluders, by stripping the power of their local governments to fend off unwanted growth through the regulation of land use. Yet the cost to imposing such a land use regime on local communities is enormous.

For starters, it opens the door for the “growth machine” to run roughshod over all communities—rich and poor alike. Those poorer neighborhoods struggling to “exclude” gentrifiers and speculators in the fight against displacement and dispossession are equally disempowered by the domination of private market forces over democratically controlled public/community institutions. More generally, the disingenuous representation of this rich/white-excluder image as the face of local land use control is manipulative. It serves to delegitimize both the broader idea that inhabitants of communities can rightfully resist market (or growth machine) forces via collectively determined government regulation and the very notion of grassroots, community-level democracy itself.

This delegitimization holds strong appeal to a plethora of right-wing organizations and thinkers, which accounts for their near unanimity in the enthusiastic embrace of the Anti-EZ Project. But for those of us deeply concerned with housing justice, the fixation on the rich/white-excluder image is a debilitating and, ultimately, destructive trap. In reality, this fixation, and the hyper-focus on a few exclusive communities it begets, distracts us from the dynamics actually driving our ongoing affordable housing crisis. Similarly, the widely vilified “NIMBYism” of these communities is, as I demonstrate in my article, mostly a red herring. While that NIMBYism exists, my analysis reveals the phenomenon to be a comparatively less consequential barrier to addressing our deepest problems of race and class than is almost universally believed.

The dirty little secret of the Anti-EZ Project is that the “E” it targets by obsessing over the effects of “Z” is marginal, at best. The true source of exclusion is the radical, almost medieval inequality generated by the American political economy, which has left us with a truly monstrous society where the top 1 percent holds more wealth than the entire bottom 90 percent combined (almost 300 million people). This isn’t just the elephant in the room. It’s a whole herd of elephants stomping out any hope for anything that begins to look like “inclusion.” We are delusional to think otherwise.

Under these conditions, exclusive enclaves are bound to be, well, exclusive. Relaxing zoning might allow some minor income mixing between the rich and merely upper middle class by providing housing for the long-suffering and much-pitied “missing middle”—but this is (or should be) pretty far down the long list of current appalling housing injustices. If profit-hungry developers are motivated enough to build highly profitable housing units, some limited inclusionary zoning set-asides might also be possible (often as little as 10 percent of units, paling in comparison to housing needs). Very heavy public subsidization combined with upzoning might allow some of the even less privileged to enter, but this irrationally drains precious resources from more urgent affordable housing needs.

The last point reveals another reason why the Anti-EZ project is so pernicious—it’s just dispersal by another name. That is, its goal isn’t just to create affordable housing in any old place, including in poorer neighborhoods where the need is most acute. Instead, it’s obsessively focused on white-dominated, privileged places. The key driver of such dispersalist measures is the (often fervently held) belief that, to improve their life chances, disadvantaged people, especially of color, must decamp to these “better,” supposedly “high opportunity” white-dominated and controlled areas. This, in fact, is exactly what the Anti-EZ Project aims to do.

We see this blatantly in Biden’s housing plan: Its key idea to eliminate exclusionary zoning comes from the HOME Act touted by Sen. Cory Booker, a darling of the neoliberal corporate wing of the Democratic party, who nonetheless had a spectacularly poor showing in the presidential primaries, which should raise questions about how well his approaches are likely to gain political traction. The “O” in the act stands for “opportunity,” the “M” for “mobility”; hence it embodies a clear embrace of what Ed Goetz astutely identifies as the deeply problematic “opportunity paradigm.”

The HOME Act proposes to withhold federal grants from cities that don’t adopt neoliberal, market-facilitating zoning “reforms” that allow developers to intensify land use where market demand is already high—e.g., exclusive suburbs or gentrifying urban neighborhoods (by, for example, building additional apartment buildings in such high-demand areas). Such apartments will, in theory, allow the more disadvantaged families (often of color) to move to such areas (i.e., exercise residential mobility) in search of “opportunity,” instead of helping to create that opportunity where these families currently live, and where social and familial ties are often strong and political control less diluted.

As Booker himself says in the HOME Act press release, its key policy goal is “to ensure all kids and families have equal access to clean, safe [which can be read as: nice white] neighborhoods” (emphasis added)—classic dispersal—when what is instead desperately needed is to ensure that all of our neighborhoods for kids and families are clean and safe.

The debate over dispersal is far from settled. But even on its own terms, it is an extremely limited, impractical strategy for fighting urban poverty and inequality, starting with the fact that there simply are not enough so-called areas of high opportunity to move people to, and complicated by the fact that people do not always want to move. While sticking it to affluent white-dominated localities by greatly reducing their zoning powers might go a long way toward making us feel good and virtuous, expending the enormous amount of political capital it would take to do so makes no sense strategically. Such capital instead could be deployed much more effectually, especially in service of a vigorous effort to revitalize struggling neighborhoods while vastly expanding their stock of quality affordable housing.

Beyond the dispersalist agenda, zoning—exclusionary or otherwise—just doesn’t matter as much as we think when it comes to the provision of affordable housing. It is true that, currently, many places zone large percentages of land for detached single-family housing. But first, that still leaves a lot of land for multifamily units, which is far from built out, if the financial resources are available to build on it. And second, in many places, perhaps even most, the affordable housing supply (whether existing or prospective) is to a significant degree made up of modest single-family houses, even detached ones, especially for working-class, moderate-income residents. This reality mutes the main criticism of single-family zoning – its ostensible hyper-exclusionary nature.

And remember, in many of our cities, where problems of poverty and inequality are most grave, the problem is not that zoning is preventing housing construction but rather quite the opposite: houses are being abandoned and demolished at a rapid rate. Even the complete elimination of single-family zoning can amount to something of a nothingburger. Indeed, when Minneapolis did so recently amid great hype and hoopla, a grand total of three building permits were requested in the following year.

In fact, the term exclusionary zoning can be understood as a kind of ideologically driven deception. It’s not zoning that is so “exclusionary”; it’s the hypercommodification and financialization of housing under conditions of extreme inequality coupled with massively uneven regional development. I would argue that the term itself functions for neoliberals (and some misguided liberals as well as, most lamentably, even some actual leftists) as a deceitful cudgel in the same way that epithets like the “death tax” or devilishly clever misnomers like “right to work” do for conservatives. Such terms are not, technically, inaccurate; instead, they disingenuously decontextualize. Thus it might be time to dump the EZ label altogether. While zoning rules can (perhaps) make some neighborhoods a bit less accessible—just as closed-shop regulations can make employment a bit less accessible—terms like exclusionary zoning and right to work deceive us by obfuscating the true sources of both housing and employment injustices alike.

Again, the above points are all just introductions to elements of my argument, which is made in full in the Urban Affairs Review pieces.

What, Then, Should We Do?

So, if eliminating zoning regulations seen as “exclusionary” should not be a high priority for the incoming Biden administration, what should?

Conceptually and strategically, it is important to emphasize that the Anti-EZers (at least the subset devoted to housing justice) get one big thing exactly right: our central goal must be to attack the highly racialized, place-based inequalities that morally disfigure our metropolitan landscape. But the Anti-EZ agenda of strengthening neoliberalism via deregulation and crippling local democracy is the polar opposite of how we should combat these inequalities and the racialized (and ultimately spatialized) privileges flowing from them. We need greater democratic empowerment of local communities, especially those of color, not less. And we need more public/community-controlled regulatory powers over land use (and related community development matters), not less. Putting both together, empowered local communities can employ these enhanced powers toward the pursuit of serious and highly impactful measures to combat deprivation, disparity, disinvestment, and dispossession.

Much of Biden’s housing plan does indeed hold great promise, especially the increased subsidies for the shelter-burdened in the form of expanded Section 8 vouchers and, for those less impoverished, a new renter credit. On the supply side, however, Biden’s proposed spending is tragically inadequate. Bernie Sanders’ campaign proposal to spend $2 trillion (over 10 years), paid for by a much-needed tax on wealth, is much closer to hitting the mark.

An important question going forward is how to ensure that funding dedicated to housing gets the greatest bang for the buck. For YIMBYs and other Anti-EZers, the aspiration is to push market prices down via the neoliberal deregulation of zoning and other land use rules—the Walmartification of affordable housing policy, a strategy bound to impose a plethora of noxious downstream externalities on local communities (the predictably high costs of everyday low prices). A much better approach is to move in the, again, polar opposite direction: toward the decommodification of market-based housing, via the scaling up of community land trusts and limited equity co-ops, and even (!) building old-school public housing.

More important than housing policy per se is the need to begin to ameliorate the massive power and resource imbalances in the American political economy. Wrought by the nearly half-century–long hegemony of neoliberal ideology—a hegemony only further fueled by the uncritical embrace of the deregulatory Anti-EZ Project—the bitter fruit of these imbalances has been the spectacular wage growth (over 160 percent since 1979) reaped by the top 1 percent, who now command a whopping average salary of over $750,000, compared to only about $39,000 for the entire bottom nine-tenths of earners. This has left us with an even greater crisis of income than of housing. Biden’s plan for an increase in the minimum wage to $15 is definitely a good start. But what is much more crucial is the need to restructure how the political economy is owned and controlled, so that the wealth of disadvantaged communities, especially of color, can be robustly rebuilt and sustained (as called for by the policy platform promulgated by the Movement for Black Lives).

In sum, to all who care deeply about housing justice (and social and racial justice more broadly), don’t be, as I have written before, “seduced or deluded—or, more precisely, conned—by the false promises of the Anti-EZ Project, with its deregulatory and disempowering pro-market ‘reform’ of housing regulations.” As we move beyond Trump and, hopefully, the phony (and dangerous) populism of Trumpism, let us all learn to stop worrying (so much) about exclusionary zoning. While we certainly don’t need to love it, let’s come to accept it, and instead focus on, as I have urged, “fight[ing] our real enemies: neoliberalism, white supremacy/racial subjugation, elite skepticism of democracy, and the growth machine.”

Read more discussion and debate on this topic at Urban Affairs Review.

David Imbroscio, Ph.D., is a professor in the Department of Political Science and Urban and Public Affairs at the University of Louisville, where he currently directs the Ph.D. Program in the School of Urban and Public Affairs. He is author or editor of several books, including Urban America Reconsidered: Alternatives for Governance and Policy published by Cornell University Press in 2010.

21 COMMENTS

  1. This is an almost unresolvable issue. Each side is partly correct I think. One problem relates to the very different conditions in different parts of different cities in different periods. Expressing opinions in absolute terms may not be helpful. Much has been written about the dichotomy between areas of opportunity v. rebuilding low-income neighborhoods, preserving systems of support for low-income folks. The truth is, both are needed so that poor households have choice. The fight to overcome exclusionary zoning is about choice–no one thinks all the barriers will be pulled down. I like the argument that breaking down zoning barriers opens neighborhoods to the worst aspects of over-development, which both rich and poor households have a reason to oppose. This gets at the root of the problem, which in my mind, is that antiquated zoning codes do not offer enough opportunity for multifamily development, period. We need to move to a zoning map where multifamily housing–for whatever income niche– can be developed as a matter of right on commercial thoroughfares, so that it becomes unnecessary to break into the heart of high end, single-family areas to get it done.

  2. Lots of progressive-sounding buzzwords about “neoliberal” and “commodification” but I don’t really see a substantive argument here, other than “if government does stuff its democratic and therefore better than markets.”

    Of course, this argument, if taken to its logical conclusion, would lead to absurd results. If government intervention is always desirable if it is somehow “democratic” we could have the kind of tyranny of local majorities that the Bill of Rights (and more recently, federal civil rights legislation) is designed to protect minorities from.

    A more reasonable article might have suggested that “abolishing exclusionary zoning is good but [desirable policy X] is even more important.” That argument would be more persuasive, but probably would not get as many clicks.

    • @Lewyn

      You really didn’t get it, did you?

      This was one of the most precise, well-reasoned articles I’ve recently read on this topic.

      Let me help by summarizing:

      Upzoning (increase density and number of lots per acre) will produce NO affordable housing and will create bot displacement and higher housing costs for renters in neighborhoods of color and poorer neighborhoods.

      It is to the “Social Justice Warriors” the same as the “Great Wall” to stop immigration is to the Trumplicans. Same lack of evidence-based reasoning replaced by “religious fervor.”

  3. This article is well reasoned and points out weaknesses of both parties’ approach to the problem of housing. But what we really need is to get jobs for people so they can afford their own housing! Bringing manufacturing back to this country is crucial for so many issues. We must stop feeding the enemy and feed our own people and economy. This would lead to more independent individuals and a country less dependent on bad actors who devalue human existence overall.

  4. This argument appears to be pro-sprawl – why bring low-income people of color into our thriving cities when we can just bring new development to them! It’s inefficient and bad for the environment. We need to build more infill housing in compact neighborhoods to prevent sprawl, cut down on driving, and create healthier and more connected communities. I definitely agree with the need for balance and abolishing single-family zoning nationwide is a political nightmare, but Booker’s proposal has nuance. Makes total sense to reward local govts for allowing multi-family housing near transit and existing walkable neighborhoods. At this point, we know local communities aren’t going to do this on their own because the unhoused are voiceless. The solution must come from federal or state levels.

    • Not at all an argument in support of “sprawl” (which most people can’t even define). It’s simple: To increase affordable housing: 1) Don’t demolish it, and 2) Subsidize new apartments.

      • Here’s the rub…current zoning in many areas not only blocks new multifamily buildings from being erected, it blocks the *subdivision* of existing buildings to respond to market demand. (And yes, while turning a house into a duplex or even a triplex is a fairly adventurous project, it’s not out of the reach of someone willing to invest the effort.)

        Besides, how are the affordable-housing developers supposed to do *their* job if they have to go through the same zoning fights that the Growth Machine takes on, yet with fewer resources?

        (Two sidenotes: first, the original author completely ignored the movement away from fine-grained land-use controls towards form-based codes that’s been taking place over the past decade. Second, and more importantly, they fail to engage with the fact that housing is a game of musical chairs: just because a newly built unit didn’t get moved into by a low-income family doesn’t mean that a unit didn’t get freed up for a low-income family to move into. See the work of [Evan Mast from the Upjohn Institute](https://research.upjohn.org/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1325&=&context=up_workingpapers&=&sei-redir=1) and other economists who have studied the topic: in short, they find that for of every 100 market-rate units built, around 34 people get to move out of a neighborhood that sits in the bottom quintile of income.)

        • The issue is that the affordability gains are regionwide but sometimes a specific neighborhood can see increased costs. especially if a neighborhood that was completely devastated over the last 60 years gets new investment, home prices can increase locally.

          This is very hard to understand for some people. they romanticize poor neighborhoods thinking of them as close-knit idealized villages. but most poor neighborhoods are places losing population where anyone who gets enough money to leave does so. Most so-called gentrified neighborhoods had a faster loss of minorities before investment occurred. But when investment occurs landlords realize that they can charge more for rents locally and also new amenities might come in to serve new residents further increasing the area’s desierability. it’s true that locally more supply slows cost increases but the poor don’t see this. if a house used to cost $1,000 at the tax auction, keeping new homes down to $100,000 instead of $200,000 is immaterial to a low-income person.

          • Yeah, that’s especially a problem in cases where that investment is concentrated into one or a few select neighborhoods, instead of being diffused out across the city at large, or even simply a large swathe of historically-disinvested cityscape. Think of someone trying to water their lawn by leaving a garden hose running in the middle of it: they’d get a soggy, mushroomy puddle in the middle (the gentrified neighborhood) and parched spots at the edges (where disinvestment persists, despite the flood of incoming capital).

            Instead, what we want to get to is the equivalent of using a lawn sprinkler on the end of that garden hose, spreading water over the whole lawn in a much more equitable fashion. While this might not yield shiny things as quickly, it doesn’t leave you with near the risk that you’ll wind up with a neighborhood that outruns its own residents, so to speak.

            As an aside, regarding the whole “market forces vs. grassroots activism” dichotomy that strongly influences these discussions: what could be more grassroots than going forth and adding housing to your own neighborhood? And nothing says that you *must* go market-rate, either…it actually makes me wonder if we’re overlooking a fairly potent combo here between incremental-scale infill development (what much of the zoning-reform movement is trying to encourage) and our existing housing subsidy system (such as the LIHTC).

  5. I completely agree that low wages of the poor and massive income inequality mean that it’s almost never profitable to build a home that a low-wage worker can afford. But this does not negate the real issue of exclusionary zoning. both can be a problem and our government not only can but must work on both issues.

    how can we be “fight[ing] our real enemies: neoliberalism, white supremacy/racial subjugation, elite skepticism of democracy, and the growth machine.” without knowing and dismantling the tools they use. Exclusionary zoning is one of many tools used to perpetuate racial and income segregation. ITs also a tool used hevily by the “growth machine” to ensure not just that we build more houses but that each house includes the yard, new roads, pipes, sewers, schools, and retail. Buildingh more houses on already developed land is necessary (unless we control population gorwth which is another necessary concern).

    • This, very much so. One of the main flaws of the idea that high-level (Fed/State) zoning reform takes away from local control and thus enables the growth machine to bring the bulldozers is that the growth machine simply *isn’t interested* in the types of small-scale, infill developments the high-level zoning reforms are working to open up. Erecting an ADU in the backyard, converting a large house into a duplex, or putting up a small mixed-use building on a vacant corner lot can be done by and large with what you can buy at a big-box store, yet that sort of thing can’t be commoditized nearly as readily as a new subdivision can, thus leaving “holes” which folks like David can take advantage of to gain power *through* the market, instead of going *against* the market as he advocates for.

      • Wow!

        “the growth machine to bring the bulldozers is that the growth machine simply *isn’t interested* in the types of small-scale, infill developments the high-level zoning reforms are working to open up.”

        What isolated world are you living in? Do some research — following 2008, large real estate investment organizations realized the HUGE opportunity for redeveloping low-density (nominally, not necessarily actually) “single-family neighborhoods.

        All I can say, is your comment is devoid of any real-world evidence.

        • You completely miss *how* the large real estate investors do real estate investment in those low-density neighborhoods. In particular, they rely on heavy-duty land assembly and larger form factor buildings as they have the clout to push through zoning changes, but are dealing with higher fixed expenses (not proportional to land footprint or building square footage), so they often can’t get anything short of a 4+1 pedestal apartment to pencil out, finance wise. (That’s a reinforced concrete “pedestal” with commercial space or parking in it, with four stories of light-frame apartments perched atop. While that base construction form can yield serviceable background buildings when finished correctly, it’s one increment of density too far for most largely-single-family neighborhoods.)

          However, your average neighbor trying to do something with the vacant lot next door doesn’t have the power to rezone said lot without jumping through a rather scary set of hoops. (Trust me, I know a thing or two about this as I’ve researched fixing the zoning nonconformance that I live on.) Removing strict effectively-exclusionary single-family-only zoning from the picture (and toning down minimum parking rules while you’re at it) enables said neighbor to take that vacant lot and turn it into two or three mailboxes instead of just one. Combine that with traditional “house hacking” techniques, and a neighborhood now can thicken up from *within* through a variety of small-scale projects undertaken by existing residents *instead* of having to choose between “no density” and “density imposed by outside forces, often taking a form that doesn’t fit the neighborhood”.

  6. I don’t want to “gush,” but Imbroscio has done an excellent job of articulating what knowledgeable, on-the-ground advocates for “affordable housing” know and are saying.

    The “EZ” movement is nothing more than the “Up for Growth” cynical exploitation of a massive group of “social justice warriors” and faux-gressives.

    It’s all out there — the evidence that market-rate upzoning is going to seriously harm poorer households.

  7. This is a lot of words to say that we should do more of the status quo, but even harder.

    The idea that “scaling up of community land trusts and limited equity co-ops, and even (!) building old-school public housing” represents some kind of political hot knife that can cut through the resistance to new development that all the forces of capital are constantly thwarted by is absurd: NIMBYs are not gonna join your side.

    Furthermore, YIMBYs are not against you. Every housing development you approve of, they do too. Co-ops, land trusts, public housing, whatever.

    It’s just that they also approve of way more and they fundamentally want to tackle the systematic problems that prevent all development from happening. This is something that left-aligned “affordable” housing activists refuse to do and why today’s progressive-dominated local city governments seem to talk themselves in circles before finally settling on painfully underwhelming housing projects.

    The effect of the anti-gentrification discourse is mainly just to give incumbent homeowners a progressive fig-leaf to cover up their naked self-interest.

    To make matters worse, this do-nothing approach makes the development that DOES happen seem to be causing the problem, since actions are always more visible than inaction. And the cycle continues: suppress development almost everywhere so that it only appears in highly concentrated ways alongside rapid displacement, get people to form an association between the two so that they join the anti-gentrification squad, the problem gets worse, repeat.

    All the while, you can claim to be advocating for change that curiously never came about.

    • Ah, another “straw man” thoroughly crushed by your evidence-free “social justice” argument.

      Besides your ad hominem use of “NIMBY in place of a rational argument, you entirely ignore in your polemic the different outcomes depending on how “anti-exclusionary zoning” (Anti-EZ) is implemented. It’s not about housing types (the whole “missing middle housing” originated as a marketing ploy), it’s about who controls what gets built — market investors or a democratic process.

      Oregon’s HB 2001 is an example of the worst case – greater gentrification, displacement of low-income households and exacerbation of climate change. HB 2001 is one-size, fits all – but excludes subdivisions with restrictive CC&Rs and (e.g.) nearby outlying towns to which economically mobile families will inevitably move, undermining public transit and Transit-Oriented Development, thus increasing VMT. It also transfers almost all control of what gets built, where and at what price to profit-seeking investors. With Eugene’s outdated and overly constrained land supply, developers within Eugene’s UGB are naturally investing in relatively expensive housing, no matter the type.

      Without elaborating, a counter-example of a near optimal case is Eugene’s resident-written Jefferson-Westside Special Area Zone, which allows ADUs, all so-called “middle housing” types and multi-family apartments, but has carefully-crafted zoning criteria focused on affordability and stability in the area. Learn more at:

      https://trusttheneighbors.files.wordpress.com/2016/01/guidetosjwzone.pdf

      The research and on-the-ground evidence is clear: Blanket, one-size-fits all “Anti-ER” upzoning that leaves development decisions almost wholly in the hand of profit-seeing entities is a disaster.

  8. There is a circular progressive nihilism that is crippling policy discussion these days.

    “Everything is terrible”
    “How do we fix it?”
    “By fixing everything”

    I am a (in your mind evil no doubt) real estate investor and can tell you that new supply absolutely exerts downward pressure on rents and housing prices. I find it odd that I have to say that, but alas. ‘Barriers to entry’ is a hotly discussed topic in investing circles; where they are high, pricing power is good. Luckily for me, the public policy thrust of basically the entire country is to favor my industry by limiting competition. I appreciate you stepping up to bat for me.

    There is a place for zoning and reasonable development controls, and citizens should be able to shape their communities. However, ’empowering communities’ is not the same thing as ‘stopping gentrification’ or ‘ensuring affordable housing.’ If new barriers to construction are erected, that doesn’t change the fact that higher income people can outbid lower income people for the same limited housing supply.

    Also, don’t use the word ‘neoliberal’. It is a meaningless dog-whistle of a word.

    • “[I] can tell you that new supply absolutely exerts downward pressure on rents and housing prices.”

      And I can tell you that new dwellings that are affordable only to households with 120% of AMI do not exert significant downward pressure on rents for households making less than 50% of AMI.

      The National Low-Income Housing Coalition “2020 Gap Report” also makes clear that 90% (or more) of the “housing-cost burdened” households make less than 50% of the AMI.

      Check the extensive research on this. I’ve also analyzed the census data for Eugene, Oregon and it aligns with NLIHC’s national analysis.

      As the Gap Report makes clear: If you want to provide housing that addresses the true need, which is almost entirely very low-income households, then build subsidized apartments.

      Folks who actually are in the trenches know this. Anti-ER zealots who want to assuage their white guilt, don’t really care.

  9. Well, David, it sounds to me like you’re repeating the arguments for state – rather than federal – control in the 1860s. If the good people of a locality or state want exclusionary zoning or slavery they should be allowed to choose it. I strenuously disagree.

  10. So much of this debate is devoid of any serious look at the history and evolution of zoning. At the height of the big suburban booms following the two world wars of the 20th century, exclusionary zoning was undoubtedly a critical tool in securing the privileges afforded to whites by national housing policies. I joined other urban planners in challenging exclusionary zoning as one way of disrupting the national regime of discrimination and white privilege.
    But times have changed and many planners of my generation haven’t woken up to the changes. The suburbs are no longer exclusively white (as Donald Trump may by now have learned) though they are still segregated. Many in relatively integrated suburban municipalities seek to use zoning to protect against gentrification and displacement, the same forces operating in central cities for decades, the same forces that fed “urban renewal (aka Negro removal).” It’s big real estate, which in many suburbs has been driven by speculative finance capital to buy out many homeowners (of all races) and continue its plunder for profit. And the “central cities” are no longer mainly “ghettoes.” Communities of color in central cities face intensive pressure from big real estate, producing gentrification and displacement on steroids. “Inclusionary zoning” is cynically being used in many cities as a means of selling real estate deals that invariably increase local land values and rents and force out many lower income communities of color, both renters and homeowners.
    I support Professor Imbroscio’s argument because it is squarely planted in a deep historical perspective that gets to the root of the problem. It’s more in tune with today’s opposition to racial injustice than today’s backward-looking campaigns against exclusionary zoning.

  11. There is a feeling of a slippery slope argument. However, the criticism is appreciated. I don’t think even the Biden Administration would claim it’s a panacea. The question is how do we define local control? Keeping EZ seems to be a recipe for continued segregation, and if the big bad boogie man of “neoliberalism” and “market forces” is lurking behind Door #2 let’s head that off directly with targeted interventions to prevent predation. Both/and folks . . .

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