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Obama’s new housing toolkit aims to make cities more affordable

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Wealthy communities have pulled up the ‘ladders of opportunity’ from lower-income residents, says the White House

A typical San Francisco neighborhood Bertl123/Shutterstock

Affordable housing was only barely mentioned during this week’s presidential debate—in fact, it’s a topic that’s been noticeably absent in this year’s campaign, save for a single op-ed by Democratic Vice Presidential candidate Tim Kaine. Perhaps sensing such a gap, our current president took it upon himself to set some standards for how to solve a housing crisis that’s crippling most urban neighborhoods.

On the eve of the debates, two op-eds were published to promote President Obama’s new Housing Development Toolkit, outlining successful methods for bringing housing back into American cities.

Over at the San Francisco Chronicle—and I think we can safely christen San Francisco the Home of the Housing Crisis—the chairman of the White House Council of Economic Advisers, Jason Furman makes an impassioned plea to reform land-use policies to repair our broken housing markets, like "streamlining permitting processes, eliminating off-street parking requirements, reducing minimum lot sizes, and enacting high-density and multifamily zoning policies." Yes, Obama is basically telling San Francisco to build more housing.

Over on Medium, an essay by Cecilia Muñoz, director of the White House Domestic Policy Council, and Luke Tate, special Economic Mobility assistant to the President, outlines the goals of the toolkit, but it also has some pretty strong language about who got us into the mess. The essay blames wealthy Americans for snatching housing out of the grasp of poorer Americans.

This passage is especially telling:

The American people have built an economy with stronger ladders of opportunity for all families to prosper. But despite these gains, too many of the communities with the most dynamic growth have pulled up those ladders behind them — often unintentionally — by creating conditions that make it impossible for families to find affordable housing in the same communities where they can find jobs. By allowing local rules that inhibit new housing development to accumulate, too many communities have limited their supply of housing over the last few decades in a way that undercuts economic mobility.

I don’t know about you, but when I read that part, I could finally see the housing crisis illustrated. Imagine the city’s most prosperous residents climbing into the neighborhoods with the best views, the safest streets, the best transit access, then pulling up the "ladders" that would allow other residents to follow in their paths. This can happen in many different ways, as the toolkit explains, from prohibitive zoning that keeps multi-family structures out, to building expensive housing in areas that were traditionally home to lower-income residents, to simply not allowing any more housing to be built, period.

"Ladders of opportunity" is also a key phrase used by Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx in his initiative to redevelop the urban freeways that divide neighborhoods and create physical barriers that separate people from jobs and schools. It’s telling that the same term is used for both housing and transportation inequality—the "ladders" that get pulled up also push people so far out of cities that they must buy cars to get to work... then cities must spend more money and space to drive and park them.

Many elements of the toolkit, specifically the recommendations to abolish parking minimums, were celebrated by affordable housing advocates. Here are some of the highlights:

Of course, these are just recommendations—there is no actual policy here, yet. And as Adam Brinklow points out at Curbed SF, some of these ideas have already proven to be less than effective. One of the big pushes is for "by-right" zoning, a plan to fast-track all approved housing, which recently failed miserably as a statewide measure in California.

Still, this is a very progressive document that is sure to inspire some changes and enrage NIMBYs everywhere. I think I speak for everyone priced out of big cities when I say thanks, Obama.