Could France’s Approach to Combating NIMBYism Work in the United States?

Twenty years ago France passed a law that required cities to have a certain percentage of social housing or face penalties for failing to comply. Since then the country’s most exclusionary cities and suburbs have seen a fivefold increase in the availability of social housing, according to a new study.

Middle-distant view of a housing project in France
Docks de St. Ouen is a 2,000-housing-unit project northwest of Paris that is 40 percent social housing. Photo courtesy of Yonah Freemark

In December 2000, France adopted an ambitious new law meant to address the patterns of economic segregation that had left affordable housing concentrated heavily in lower-income, outlying suburban communities. Solidarité et Renouvellement Urbain, or Urban Solidarity and Renewal (SRU), mandated that French municipalities ensure that at least 20 percent of their total housing stock be “social housing,” subsidized affordable housing restricted to lower-income residents.

After more than a decade of weak compliance by cities, France revised the law in 2013 to increase the requirement to 25 percent social housing and increase the financial penalties for failing to comply. The amended law also included a threat: If communities didn’t start constructing social housing or converting existing buildings to social housing, the federal government would use eminent domain to do it for them.

More than two decades after the law’s passage, new research from the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy attempts to determine whether SRU has been effective in its aim to get every French city to do its fair share when it comes to providing affordable housing and how such a law could work in the U.S. Though many French cities have yet to meet the 25 percent social housing threshold, author Yonah Freemark, an Urban Institute senior research associate, says the law has been a success. For example, he found that France’s most exclusionary cities and suburbs have seen a fivefold increase in the availability of social housing since the law was passed. In the Paris metro region, the number of municipalities with less than 7 percent social housing was reduced from 86 cities to 45 as they increased their social housing stock.

Shelterforce spoke with Freemark to learn more about SRU, its efficacy and shortcomings, and the lessons the law holds for the United States and its own attempts and failings to address the concentration of poverty and expand affordable housing opportunities in exclusionary communities. This conversation has been edited lightly for length and clarity.

Josh Cohen: To start, why did you want to look into France’s SRU law?

photo of Jonah Freemark, who discusses subsidized affordable housing in France
Yonah Freemark

Yonah Freemark: I’ve studied France over the long term just because it’s an area of research interest for me. I was particularly interested in this law because it has been actively debated in France for many decades now. It’s an acknowledgment of the fact that there’s a need to deal with exclusive communities and a need to reduce segregation. But in France there has not yet been a detailed study of its effects in a way that I did, so I felt like there was a gap in our collective knowledge.

What is the SRU law trying to accomplish?

The general goal of the SRU law as passed in 2000 was to combat the systemic problems of segregation and inequality that occur across French metropolitan regions. The idea was that by requiring a certain level of affordable housing in every community then the problems related to discrimination and segregation would be reduced. As initially passed in 2000, the law had some ambitious goals, but not necessarily the means to accomplish them.

‘That expansion of penalties has made the law much more successful.’

One of the things I show in my research is that the law actually became far more effective after a reform to it was passed in 2013. The government essentially ramped up the penalties on communities that were not complying with the rules. That expansion of penalties has made the law much more successful.

Tell me about the successes of the law. Now that there are penalties in place, how successful has it been in desegregating communities and creating new housing?

The major accomplishment of the law has been a reduction in the level of exclusivity of the wealthiest communities in the country. When you look at the sort of suburban cities where affordable housing had been most rare before the law was passed, the amount of social housing in those places increased by fivefold after the law was passed. So that is certainly a success. The other thing that the law has done is it has significantly reduced the concentration of affordable housing in parts of the urban areas where it has been implemented. That is really a positive thing.

That said, the law has not accomplished all of the things it aimed for. There’s still a significant gap between what would need to be accomplished in terms of adding social housing units and what is actually being accomplished based on the law. Things are improving because of the changes that happened in 2013, but they’re not improving quickly enough to achieve the objectives that people are hoping for. I would say the law has been successful, but it still needs a lot more work. There remain too many communities that are off limits to most people who can’t afford market-rate housing.

A street view of Docks de S. Ouen, a 2,000-housing-unit project northwest of Paris that is 40 percent social housing. Photo courtesy of Yonah Freemark

Correct me if I’m wrong, but one takeaway I had from your paper is that the law has led to relatively few new social housing units being built countrywide since 1999, but has helped redistribute the location of social housing. So is it better to understand SRU primarily as a tool for reducing concentrated poverty than it is a housing production tool?

That’s right. The law was not intended specifically to increase the number of social housing units in the country as a whole. Arguably France needs more social housing units. It obviously has a lot more than the United States does, but the goal of this law was not really to increase the number of social housing units. In metropolitan areas in France, the number of social housing units did increase over this period, but they did not increase as quickly as the number of market-rate units over the same period. The main accomplishment of the law was suggesting that social housing units should not all be located in the poorest communities, which had been much more of the case before. That social housing units need to be distributed fairly across urban areas. That’s why in this paper, I refer to it as a fair share law.

The law has not been implemented at a pace necessary to meet its goals by 2025. Are there any shortcomings of the law that you think could be improved or are worth considering as people look to it as a model piece of legislation?

Some of the enforcement mechanisms allowed by the national government have been used more than others. The monetary penalties have been enforced by the national government. So rich communities have had to pay out fines, which is a good thing because ultimately those fines actually go to the poorer communities. It’s a nice sort of redistributive mechanism.

But other types of penalties were used more as sort of a threat than a reality. The number of instances, for example, of the national government using eminent domain to site affordable housing in the communities that were not complying [with] the law is very limited. I think that the national government could be more ambitious in expropriating land in the wealthiest communities and saying we need to find more places for affordable housing.

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Ultimately these are mostly fully built-out communities. We’re not talking about places with a lot of green-field land. We’re talking about relatively urban communities. You know, in France even the wealthiest communities are not like American suburbs. We’re talking about built-up communities. So the national government probably needs to take on a greater charge of literally taking the land and giving it to affordable housing developers.

In that same vein, can you give readers a sense of how communities in France compare to the U.S. when it comes to housing segregation and the concentration of poverty and affordable housing?

Making comparisons is difficult for a number of reasons. The first reason is that the level of inequality in French society is much lower so it’s harder to have the levels of segregation that you see routinely in U.S. metropolitan areas. That said there certainly are examples, especially in the Paris region where you have vast differences in income.

Courtesy of Yonah Freemark

In a blog post about this report, I compared a very low-income community called Bobigny and a very wealthy community called Saint-Cloud. Saint-Cloud has a per capita income that’s more than twice Bobigny’s per capita income and these two places are relatively close to one another. Saint-Cloud had 10 percent social housing in 1999 and Bobigny had 58 percent social housing in 1999. So you can see that a lot of the issues of segregation and concentration of affordable housing exists in France just as they do in the United States and certainly from that perspective, I think there is comparison to be made.

However, out of interest, I compared what was happening in France with what was happening in Connecticut. And one thing that’s really interesting is I found that 38 percent of affordable housing in Connecticut is in just four cities, which have only 12 percent of the state’s households. That level of concentration at a municipal scale is not the same in France. So there’s more concentration of affordable housing in the United States and there’s a lot less affordable housing. In France, a high level of affordable housing [for one municipality] would be [that] around 35 percent of units are social housing. In the U.S. a high level of affordable housing is like 10 to 15 percent.

You conclude in your paper that SRU could potentially be a model for the U.S., or at least pieces of it could be a model. I’m curious to hear how you imagine it working in the U.S. Where can you see it having a positive effect and at what level of government could it be implemented?

The first thing that is clear is that this would have to be undertaken at the state level, not the federal level. State governments are typically those that oversee local land use law. They’re essentially the custodians of municipal government.

Because the concentration of affordable housing is so much more extreme in the United States than it is in France, it would be harder to achieve some of the changes that have occurred in SRU law, especially because there isn’t enough funding for affordable housing. One thing I show is that in Connecticut, if you wanted everywhere to have a level of affordable housing that New Haven had, you would have to fund 26,000 new affordable housing units, which is more than the state of Connecticut has received in LIHTC funding since the program was initiated in 1986.

So you have a substantial barrier to achieving these sort of outcomes in terms of increased affordable housing. That said, you could significantly reduce the concentration just by asking each community to increase its share. I propose that you increase every community’s share of affordable units by 2 percentage points. This would not result in a gigantic increase of new affordable housing units, but it would redistribute them quite significantly. So it would reduce the share of affordable housing in [the city of New Haven] from 65 percent to just 45 percent. And so I think the net result of that would be essentially more voice for vulnerable people, more ability to live in different sorts of communities, and less concentration of social services and things of that sort in just a few individual communities.

One thing that came to mind while reading about some of the wealthier French communities that were willing and able to pay fines for not complying with the SRU mandate was California’s Regional Housing Needs Allocation where the state mandates the amount of new housing each municipality must build. Wealthy California cities often sue to not comply with those mandates. Do you think there are lessons from SRU for how to bring more affordable housing to obstinate wealthy communities?

I think there is little question that the ability to achieve positive outcomes fundamentally depends on enforcement from a state government that’s not willing to essentially submit itself to the demands of local governments. And that’s really hard.

We talked about how an American version of SRU would have to be implemented at the state level. But there are some parallels to President Biden’s vision for addressing exclusionary zoning at a federal level, although Biden’s idea relies largely on offering carrots in the form of grants and technical assistance to local communities versus the stick of penalties.

The thing is that the communities that are most exclusive are the same ones that have least interest in getting federal government grants. Simply relying on discretionary grants that are voluntary and that are about supporting communities that have interest in doing something is not going to produce positive outcomes. What is needed is enforcement.

That makes sense. Giving communities money that want to voluntarily participate to limit exclusionary zoning is going to result in communities doing it that were already doing the work.

Yes, exactly. And also the grants are not going to be very large. We’re not talking about some sort of grant that’s going to dramatically change the fiscal environment of a community. The only cities that actually need grants to dramatically change their fiscal environments are the ones that are least in need of expanding their levels of affordable housing. The incentives are sort of backwards.

What do you want U.S. policymakers and housing advocates and others to take away from your analysis of SRU?

One thing I would want to make clear is that inclusionary zoning is not adequate. Inclusionary zoning is a policy designed exclusively for new construction. And it really is limited in terms of its applicability because the vast majority of housing is not new construction. There has to be a mechanism to encourage municipalities to address the citywide housing situation, not just new construction.

The second thing is that real improvements in integration are possible. I think a lot of advocates and people in the United States unfortunately look at the data historically and actually see increasing levels of segregation, especially segregation by income. And I think that SRU is a demonstration of the fact that it is actually possible to see increased integration, especially income-wise.

Then the last thing I would say is that we continue to have a housing affordability problem in the United States that is not going to be solved unless we identify new funding sources for affordable housing that is subsidized. That has to be part of the equation as well, zoning conversations.

SRU should be a model as long as it’s associated with new funding for affordable housing subsidies. And as long as it’s associated with reasonable enforcement, because without that it’s just going to be a failure.

Thank you.

Josh Cohen is Shelterforce’s policy fellow. Cohen, based in the San Francisco Bay Area, is a freelance journalist covering housing and homelessness.

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