The attempt to make the “abolition of the suburbs” a campaign issue, crystallized in a Wall Street Journal op-ed by President Trump and Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson, signals a clear shift from the YIMBY-ish noises made by the administration a few years ago. The piece, in which the president and Secretary Carson promise to “save our suburbs,” is a whiplash-inducing about-face on the part of the administration and another nail in the coffin of the free-market wing of the Republican Party. It was accompanied by a regulatory change that all but eliminated an Obama-era fair-housing policy, in a reversal from HUD’s position only months earlier.
On the first night of the RNC, the gun-totin’ McCloskeys echoed the claim that Democrats would abolish the suburbs by doing away with single-family zoning. The alarm of federal overreach has been sounded, and pro-Trump media outlets have marched in lockstep to paint Joe Biden’s proposed housing regulations as a means to destroy the suburbs.
Vox’s Matthew Yglesias described these rants as “identity politics trump[ing] free market regulatory reform.” I believe this is true, but the issue goes far deeper. The heyday of the free market wing of the GOP is at its end, but its idealization of low-density suburban living was always one of its most glaring blind spots. The American suburbs are a monument to government intervention, and have been since their inception. Throughout the history of the suburbs, social engineering married to American-style central planning has always trumped free market policies. At the same time, a recent focus on housing affordability and unequal access to job- and opportunity-rich areas, on both the left and the right, creates opportunities for substantive housing reform.
It is a mistake to assume that detached single-family homes on large plots or high-rises are the only two options, and there are no options in between that would balance affordability with desirable neighborhoods. Unequal access to homeownership is a significant driver of inequality, and it must be made easier for people to live in the suburbs when that is where they work , or when work is in the cities but other opportunities for upward mobility (e.g., schooling) are in the suburbs. In this three-part essay, I hope to assuage fears about the Biden administration’s proposals, explain why the suburbs are not the monument to self-reliance and organic community they appear to be, and outline how housing reformers can capitalize on the recent nationalization of housing policy in an age of negative partisanship to increase affordability and access.
What’s all the fuss about?
For a month before Trump and Carson’s op-ed, the New York Post, National Review, and The Wall Street Journal made up the vanguard of a conservative hue and cry against “Biden’s plan … to force suburban towns with single-family homes and minimum lot sizes to build high-density affordable housing smack in the middle of their leafy neighborhoods” and “the end of local control, the end of a style of living that many people prefer to the city, and therefore the end of meaningful choice in how Americans can live.”
So, what exactly is Biden proposing? From his campaign website:
Roll back Trump Administration policies gutting fair lending and fair housing protections for homeowners. Biden will implement the Obama-Biden Administration’s Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing Rule [AFFH] requiring communities receiving certain federal funding to proactively examine housing patterns and identify and address policies that have a discriminatory effect. The Trump Administration suspended this rule in 2018. Biden will ensure effective and rigorous enforcement of the Fair Housing Act and the Home Mortgage Disclosure Act.
This January, the Trump administration released a revised AFFH rule that required localities receiving federal funding to recommend three concrete reforms to liberalize housing construction, rather than issue lengthy reports on various addressing other issues not directly related to housing construction and affordability. Those that followed through on the reforms would receive additional grant funding. Stanley Kurtz in National Review describes it as “AFFH lite,” which is not an unfair description considering the more streamlined, limited approach it creates to identifying restrictions on housing. The short-lived change to the rule wasn’t perfect, but it was most certainly a step in the right direction.
But with the election approaching, the administration pushed out yet another AFFH rule — one that is much closer to “AFFH zero.” The newest iteration only states: “AFFH certifications will be deemed sufficient provided they took any action during the relevant period rationally related to promoting fair housing, such as helping eliminate housing discrimination.” It’s weaker, and disappointing, though it should be pointed out that in the grand scheme of things, federal housing policy can only go so far to address the current affordability crisis, and there is no adequate substitute for housing policy reform at the state and local level.
The other major housing reform Biden is pitching is a pledge to sign into law the Housing Opportunity, Mobility, and Equity (HOME) Act, introduced by Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-SC). This legislation is a bit meatier, but is still tied to federal funds, which localities are technically free to turn down. Even if a Biden administration were to go so far as to withhold aid outright to governments that do not comply with AFFH regulations, congressional opposition would likely prevent the most aggressive strategies to increase housing supply. I would be disappointed if this happened, and everyone else should be too, but it is just plain wrong to describe this as a federal takeover of local housing policy.
It is clear that as critical as America’s housing crisis is, federal interventions designed to increase housing supply are far more modest than the phrase “abolish the suburbs” makes them sound. To a certain degree, there is a branding problem. While the shorthand “abolish single-family zoning” is popular among pro-housing advocates and a technically accurate description of one popular and effective reform, it has clear negative connotations: It sounds like a call to eliminate single-family homes, rather than to eliminate zoning restrictions that allow only single-family homes to be built. This is why many YIMBY advocates encourage using the phrase “legalize apartments” instead. “Legalize” is obviously a friendlier word than “abolish,” and since zoning itself is a restriction, “abolish single-family zoning” is like saying “restrict a restriction.”
This branding issue has facilitated the spread of one glaring falsehood in the debate about the particulars of housing reform, which must be corrected. Everyone is entitled to a little bit of hyperbole, but eliminating single-family zoning does not, as critics claim “allow high-rise apartment complexes and other forms of dense urban development to migrate outward into areas that were formerly restricted to construction of detached, single-family homes.”
This is wrong for a number of reasons. First, there are a wide range of zoning options between legalizing the construction of high-rises and requiring detached, single-family homes. Communities can be zoned for only duplexes, triplexes, and other smaller, multifamily housing units that cannot be reasonably called high-rises. They can also be zoned for mixed-use, with apartments above main-street storefronts. Minneapolis 2040 did away with the practice of requiring single-family zoning, yes, but it did not legalize high-rises everywhere.
Even with far-reaching reforms, there is no guarantee that liberalization will lead to housing construction up to the maximum permitted. Take again the case of Minneapolis. Not only are there not skyscrapers everywhere, but only three new triplexes have been approved. All of these, in fact, are former single-family homes converted into triplexes. This is disappointing, but it’s also a sign of how seemingly radical liberalizations can produce modest results. Last year, Oregon effectively legalized multi-family units in all towns with populations larger than 10,000. The most stringent requirement is that larger municipalities must allow fourplexes on what were previously single-family plots, but this has not led to fourplexes completely replacing single-family homes and it certainly isn’t a high-rise takeover.
In short, legalization of something does not mean it will necessarily be built. This is obvious in any other market: If a city legalizes food trucks, that does not mean there will literally be taco trucks on every corner, or on any corner at all. The most rudimentary understanding of the market system will tell you that if people demand single-family homes and are willing to pay above what a developer would make with a different type of housing, then the single-family home will be built. Similarly, unless eminent domain rears its ugly head, no homeowners will be compelled to give up their single-family homes. They may choose to sell if the price is right, of course, and development restrictions would limit their ability to do so.
In fact, in suburban neighborhoods, restrictive laws have the effect of taking away from homeowners the opportunity to increase their incomes by making it possible for them to build additional housing on land they already own. Accessory dwelling units (ADUs, sometimes called “mother-in-law” cottages or “tiny homes”) are small homes best suited for single occupants, which a few states have legalized by removing the most stringent restrictions on their construction, even if localities still make it difficult. These are an ideal housing arrangement for students, single people brought to the suburbs for work, and, as the nickname implies, older relatives. A smaller house on one’s property sounds like a significant change to the neighborhood, but such structures are no more radical than a detached garage. Last year, both California and Seattle updated their laws to allow the construction of separate, detached units as well.
Only under a very rigid understanding of a “suburb” as a one-home-per-plot neighborhood would the above reforms be considered “abolishing the suburbs.” I disagree with that interpretation, but even so, there’s significant opportunity for reform to increase density that would be perfectly compatible with this strict definition: reducing minimum lot sizes, parking requirements, and setback requirements. Houston has a reputation for having a light-touch approach to housing regulation, but this reputation is undermined by two significant regulations: parking requirements and minimum lot sizes. These policies have the predictable effect of decreasing suburban density, increasing home prices, and reducing access to desirable neighborhoods.
All of the above-listed policies not only demonstrate that “high-rises everywhere” is an inaccurate description of what sensible land-use liberalization looks like, but how modest changes with the potential to significantly increase housing supply would barely change the suburban ambiance. Indeed, the last changes I mentioned (to minimum lot sizes, parking requirements, and setback requirements) do not even require changes to the one-home-per-plot view of these neighborhoods. Instead, they make it so more housing of that style can be built. And modest changes are the type Booker and Clyburn envision emerging from their HOME Act: “For example, a grantee could choose to reduce restrictions on lot size, eliminate parking requirements, or allow accessory dwelling units and multifamily homes.”
In sum, there are countless ways to expand housing opportunity and affordability through “gentle” density. Such changes expand housing choice by allowing exploration of the large middle ground between the cookie-cutter, low-density and car-dependent McMansion vision of the suburbs and high-rise urban density.
What housing will be built, and where
The focus on the suburbs as a target of housing liberalization misses a big part of the picture. Regulations restricting new housing construction are prevalent everywhere, and dense cities are no exception. Kevin Erdmann’s book Shut Out offers a novel interpretation of the mid-2000s housing bubble as a “refugee crisis,” where mortgage borrowing was driven by those who wanted to live in dense urban neighborhoods but couldn’t due to lack of affordability and availability and so purchased homes in low-density suburbs instead. This “refugee” dynamic is one that should be considered and creates interesting political opportunities for broad-based land-use reform that isn’t exclusively focused on the suburbs, on which I will focus in part three.
The housing affordability crisis in urban areas and its relation to the growth of the suburbs certainly opens the door to counterfactual analysis of what the U.S. housing market would look like if cities had been allowed to grow along with their populations. It’s worth keeping in mind going forward, but to a certain extent it’s a moot point: After nearly a century of implicit and explicit support for suburban development at the federal level (more on that in part two), this is the world in which we live.
Not only are the suburbs not going anywhere, they were always destined to exist in some form. Once the automobile and mass transit emerged, the growth of more spacious neighborhoods within commuting distance of major cities was inevitable. And the evidence supports the notion that the suburbs are a popular choice of residence. In 2018, Pew found that while urban population growth is keeping pace with general population growth and rural growth is lagging (when it isn’t negative), the suburbs lead the pack in terms of population growth. Further analysis from Pew indicates that suburban counties “are growing at opposite ends of the age spectrum, seeing an increase in adults ages 65 and older and those under age 25. But they are losing out to urban core counties when it comes to prime working-age adults — those ages 25 to 44 — who are increasingly residing in the urban core counties.”
The U-shaped age distribution of the population growth in the suburbs can be interpreted in a number of ways, especially when considering growth caused by under-25s moving in with their parents compared with prime-age workers moving more toward cities. This speaks to labor market issues well beyond the scope of this essay, but it’s not unreasonable to assume that more firms would relocate to suburban neighborhoods if they knew the potential population density were such that they could have a large pool of workers to draw from —or that potential workers wouldn’t be deterred from coming due to lower incomes net of housing costs. Moderate increases in suburban density could do their part to address these problems. As Theo Mackey Pollack writes in The American Conservative:
Today, small-town America is in deep economic and cultural crisis. Local wealth is drained away by global corporations, and few incentives draw the talent to replace what is lost. Meanwhile, many of our cities are changing so quickly that people cannot recognize, or afford, the places that were once familiar. In short, our communities are failing to respond to rapid change in a way that transmits essential traditions or even offers a sense of continuity. It is particularly salient that, among the casualties of bad zoning are housing options that would allow people to remain in long-term communities, close to family, friends, and self-help groups; as well as affordable retail spaces in which small businesses could begin to rebuild and retain local wealth…
On their own, the above-mentioned real estate deficits would be troublesome; but they are made much worse by the fact that the types of real estate they represent — apartment housing and Main Street retail space — would otherwise be the building blocks of traditional town centers. Significantly, the basic arrangement of traditional towns and cities represents a cultural tradition that can be traced down to modern times from classical antiquity [as seen in older European towns].
Indeed, this is not at all a case where we must sacrifice friendly, desirable neighborhoods on the altar of economic growth. Addison Del Mastro, also writing for TAC, describes the “new urbanist” neighborhood in Kentlands, a private neighborhood in Gaithersburg, Maryland, about 30 miles outside of downtown D.C. It is most certainly dense by the standards of McMansion suburbia (and the residences would be a clear violation of many suburban land-use regulations), but there isn’t a high-rise in sight.
Kentlands, and neighborhoods like it, are quaint. They resemble an American take on smaller European cities, which are highly walkable and surprisingly dense, with work near where people live. They are also, of course, aggressively illegal under the restrictive, regressive regulations which govern housing construction in many suburban neighborhoods.
Indeed, you would be surprised how much of the land in major cities is restricted to detached single-family development. New York City is an outlier, with only 15 percent of residential land zoned for single-family detached homes, but in cities like Portland (77 percent), Seattle (81 percent), and Los Angeles (75 percent), the lion’s share of housing is of the single-family detached variety. Despite being in urban core counties, these areas have a suburban feel to them. This leads to a shockingly low population density. In 2016, New York led the pack with 28,000 people per square mile, while Los Angeles and Seattle had around 8,500 per square mile. Portland had under 5,000 people per square mile. By comparison, look at Kentlands. With an area of roughly 0.6 square miles, it holds about 5,500 residents (just above 9,000 people per square mile). This puts most major cities in the United States to shame.
When thinking of the HOME Act or the AFFH regulations proposed by the Biden campaign, you should think of these living arrangements — attached homes with smaller lot sizes — rather than high-rises everywhere. As long as they’re in demand and the law allows it, Americans will migrate to these neighborhoods and the market will supply these kinds of housing choices.
What the pandemic changed
Of course, most of this data is from before the outbreak of COVID-19, and this analysis would be woefully incomplete without considering what the pandemic will do to longer-term preferences for housing.
Short-term trends indicate that people are fleeing the cities for the suburbs. Urban rents are going down, home prices in the outlying suburbs are going up. This seems like a predictable response to a pandemic spread by close contact with others, but the conventional wisdom is undermined by research on COVID spread and urban density. Density per se, it turns out, is not a strong predictor of COVID transmission. Poverty and the features of it — including overcrowding — are much stronger predictors, but these are not at all inherent to density.
Whether or not this information will replace the conventional wisdom is another story entirely. Will people internalize that urban density isn’t correlated with disease transmission? Will we return to the status quo ante once COVID passes? Will the trend toward urbanization lose momentum and something akin to the “white flight” of the ‘60s and ‘70s happen again? Will the unrest caused by police brutality instead be the driving force pushing people out to the suburbs? Such speculation is well beyond the scope of this essay, but whatever happens, land-use liberalization is necessary both in urban cores and their suburban rings .
If the trend towards urbanization — moving to urban core counties — accelerates, then cities must accommodate their newcomers and suburbs must change to absorb spillover. If people choose to move away from big cities and instead desire the suburbs, liberalization of the kind which would allow more Kentlands would make these areas more affordable without sacrificing the essential qualities of the suburbs. Cities, meanwhile, could compete for residents by cutting the cost of living in the urban core.
Conclusion: Not a big effing deal
Even if a Biden administration had its way and attached more strings to federal funding through AFFH regulations, signed the HOME Act, and let Cory Booker run wild in his dastardly plan to make housing more affordable, there’s only so much the federal government can do on the housing front — most of the action is at the state and local level, as I will discuss more in part three. AFFH regulations and proposed legislation do not mandate changes to local zoning codes, but instead peg them to federal dollars, making that money go further for the federal taxpayer but also leaving local communities technically free to opt out. Suburban communities will still exist, and if homeownership is in demand the market will supply it. And, unless a Biden administration or local governments embrace Trump’s love of eminent domain, if you like your house you can keep it.
The utilization of “abolishing the suburbs” as a rallying cry to prevent greater housing construction only works because it makes a quintessentially American lifestyle seem like it is under threat. This is simply not the case. Many Americans want to live in denser, though certainly not urbanized, communities, but are prevented from having this specific variant of the “suburban lifestyle dream” through restrictive regulations. With these neighborhoods comes greater affordability, a win-win scenario.
Housing policy must be forward-looking, and reformers have their work cut out for them. At the same time, to address the problem it’s necessary to look to the past to examine how the suburbs came to look the way they do today and why they are so thoroughly ingrained in the American consciousness. This story, with its ties to a dark chapter of American history, is the subject of the next installment in this series.