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Trump wants to deregulate local zoning. Housing advocates are skeptical

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HUD Secretary Ben Carson, a professed YIMBY, will chair a council to study exclusionary land-use laws

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President Trump signed an executive order on Tuesday that establishes a “White House Council on Eliminating Regulatory Barriers to Affordable Housing,” which will study exclusionary local zoning laws that prevent the construction of multifamily housing units.

Department of Housing and Urban Development secretary Ben Carson, who has made numerous critical statements about exclusionary zoning over the last few years, will serve as chairperson of the council. Other members of Trump’s cabinet will serve on the council, including Steven Mnuchin, David Bernhardt, Sonny Perdue, Alexander Acosta, Elaine Chao, Rick Perry, and Andrew Wheeler.

“With the signing of today’s executive order, President Trump is prescribing a powerful treatment that correctly diagnoses the source of America’s affordable housing condition; this is a matter of supply and demand, and we have to increase the supply of affordable homes by changing the cost side of the equation,” Carson said in a statement. “Increasing the supply of housing by removing overly burdensome rules and regulations will reduce housing costs, boost economic growth, and provide more Americans with opportunities for economic mobility.”

The council will be tasked with identifying and quantifying the effect of federal, state, and local regulatory barriers to creating more housing, and to take action to reduce regulations and align federal policy with the goal of reducing “regulatory and administrative burdens” that stand in the way of housing. The council is directed to provide policy recommendations by January 2021.

Diane Yentel, president and CEO of the National Low Income Housing Coalition, questions whether building affordable housing is the real goal of the order given Carson and Trump’s track record.

“An effort by this administration to address restrictive local zoning would be welcomed if it weren’t belied by other actions to gut affordable and fair housing in America and by the council’s true intent, made clear by its design,” she said in a statement. “Made up of representatives of the Departments of Treasury, Labor, Agriculture and the EPA, the council will likely assist the administration in removing important federal regulations that protect fair wages, fair housing, the environment, and more.”

Exclusionary zoning or Not In My Back Yard (NIMBY) policies, often prevent multifamily housing development through mechanisms like capping the height at which apartments can be built or requiring a minimum number of parking spaces per development, taking up land that could otherwise be used for units of housing. These policies are especially prevalent in wealthy suburbs, where single-family houses make up the lion’s share of housing units.

But over the last 10 years, empty lots available for development have gotten more scarce, and businesses have relocated to big cities like New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles in order to attract young talent. With NIMBYism preventing new housing from being built, rents and home prices have risen dramatically as housing supply has contracted.

Increased awareness of the adverse effects of NIMBYism has given rise to a Yes In My Back Yard (YIMBY) movement that advocates for deregulation of local zoning laws as a way to increase the housing supply in urban cores where there’s a lack.

Advocates for YIMBYism include some strange political bedfellows, as both the libertarian right—which advocates for deregulation on principle—and center-left politicians looking for policy prescriptions to bring down rent for the lower and middle class have converged around a need to address supply side constraints in housing construction by addressing local zoning laws.

The problem for the federal government and its representatives is that there are few legal tools at their disposal. Democratic candidates for president—notably Senators Elizabeth Warren and Cory Booker, and former HUD secretary Julián Castro—have released housing plans that attempt to use federal block grant money to incentivize local governments to make changes.

Warren’s plan creates a new $10 billion grant program that communities can use to build infrastructure, but they have to reform land-use laws to qualify. Booker’s plan ties $16 billion in federal block grant money—mostly in transportation funds—to governments making land-use reforms. Castro wants to expand Community Development Block Grants and rural development programs by $2 billion per year and make it available only upon land-use reforms. He also proposed a presidential commission on zoning reform.

There’s a question as to whether the incentives would actually work, though, because many of the wealthy communities that are most in need of land-use reform don’t receive federal block grant money to begin with. And, if given the choice between keeping their zoning laws and getting the money, they might just give up the money.

Ben Carson’s turn to YIMBYism was, at first, puzzling. But given his Libertarian bent, it makes sense that Carson would advocate for deregulation that would allow private developers more space with which to build new housing.

That Carson wants to tackle it from his perch at a federal agency, and from within Trump’s new council, is less ideologically pure, as he’s spent most of his tenure at HUD trying to rollback Obama-era regulations that strengthened the Fair Housing Act while decrying them as failed social engineering.