Amid the many responses and reactions to President Trump’s tweets over the weekend disparaging Baltimore and Rep. Elijah Cummings, a consistent topic touched upon by both supporters and detractors of the president was the need for urban policy at all levels of government, both in Baltimore and cities nationwide. Can decades of leadership decisions by local politicians harm a city? What’s the responsibility and reach of the federal government when it comes to the state of underinvested neighborhoods in urban areas of the United States? What has Trump done for U.S. cities lately?
No one politician, especially a president in office for less than three years, can lay claim to all the credit or blame for the current state of a large American city. Decades of urban renewal, discriminatory housing policies, and economic change have created today’s state of inequality, where some cities thrive, others struggle, and many neighborhoods are challenged by disinvestment, blight, and a lack of social mobility.
But the president and his administration have put forth a platform that proposes significant changes for urban America. Curbed has compiled the numerous policy pronouncements and plans put forth by the Trump White House, in an attempt to look at what the administration has accomplished.
This is not an exhaustive list. We haven’t included many Trump administration policies that impact both cities and other parts of the country, such as environmental deregulations that can harm air quality, criminal justice reform that can reduce recidivism, and disaster aid delays that have hindered rebuilding.
To that end, we looked at the Trump administration’s big ideas for altering four areas of federal involvement in cities: housing, transportation, zoning, and economic development.
Opportunity Zones: Giving investors tax breaks to invest in distressed areas of the country
Perhaps the most significant long-term policy enacted during the Trump administration aimed at helping disinvested urban areas is the Opportunity Zones program, a plan to get the market more involved in investing in cities. Investors would get tax break if they invest capital gains—profit they earn from the sale of assets—in distressed areas of the country designated as Opportunity Zones. As Curbed’s Jeff Andrews wrote, “the program seeks to direct capital to underserved areas of the country, ones in need of an influx of money to jump-start their economies.”
Advocates for the program, first proposed during 2016 and eventually included in a push for tax reform, call it a potentially game-changing community development tool that can direct investment to areas of the country that didn’t benefit from the post-financial crisis recovery. The average poverty rate for Opportunity Zones is 29 percent, compared to the national rate of 15 percent, and these areas cover nearly half of the country’s areas of persistent, concentrated poverty. The Economic Innovation Group estimates that unrealized capital gains—or capital gains on assets that haven’t been sold yet—totaled $6.1 trillion at the end of 2017. The group believes that if even a fraction of that amount finds its way into opportunity funds, it could dramatically transform areas in need of change.
But others feel that without proper guardrails or rules, the program may not live up to its potential. For instance, critics point to the way these areas were selected and designated. Governors picked specific census tracts, which, based on analysis of the roughly 8,700 tracts designated Opportunity Zones, aren’t always the underinvested areas the program purports to serve. For instance, the area where Amazon was going to build its HQ2 in Queens was an Opportunity Zone.
The Urban Institute’s study concluded that capital investments in “actual Opportunity Zone designations indicate only minimal targeting of the program toward disadvantaged communities with lesser access to capital relative to all eligible tracts.” The Brookings Institute noted that more than a quarter of selections were either “not poor, were college campuses, or were areas where no one lived,” with Mississippi, Idaho, and South Dakota being among the worst offenders, although not every state had submitted their selections at the time of the study.
Transportation and infrastructure: Focus on highways instead of transit alternatives
From the day the Republican platform was announced during the party’s 2016 convention—which decried Democrats for replacing “civil engineering with social engineering” and trying to “coerce people out of their cars”—the Trump administration has been focused on expanding and rebuilding highways. Repeated budget proposals have favored cars and highways over cycling and mass transit, and asked state and local governments to shoulder more of the burden for large-scale transportation investments. And a lack of an overall nationwide infrastructure plan, a campaign trail staple for Trump, has delayed crucial rebuilding projects.
In 2018, as part of its overall budget proposal, the administration proposed $52 billion in cuts that would impact Capital Investment Grants, which are used to pay for new public transit projects, decrease funding for Amtrak and the Washington, D.C. Metro system, and cut the TIGER program, an Obama-era initiative to fund multimodal transit projects. Paul P. Skoutelas, American Public Transportation Association president and CEO, said the proposal which would sacrifice federal transit funding by redirecting money towards more highways, it would, in effect, “rob Peter to pay Paul.”
Public Housing: Reduce the federal commitment to housing assistance
The Ben Carson-helmed HUD has repeatedly proposed cuts to public housing programs. In May of 2019, the White House budget proposal suggests a drastic, 16.4 percent decrease in housing aid and public housing support.
As Curbed’s Jeff Andrews wrote, the proposal “would have entirely eliminated the Public Housing Capital Fund, used to maintain and improve public housing buildings; makes a 38 percent cut to the Public Housing Operating Fund, which is used to fund the basic operations of public housing; and also completely eliminates many popular federal block grant programs that virtually every local municipality depends on for community development funds, including the Community Development Block Grant program, HOME Investment Partnerships, the Choice Neighborhoods Initiative, and the Self-Help Homeownership Opportunity program.”
Housing advocates have said slashing the budget for these programs amid a nationwide affordable housing crisis will exacerbate issues such as housing instability and homelessness.
Zoning: Eliminating exclusionary policies to let builders create more supply
Earlier this year, the Trump administration created an advisory commission to recommend potential zoning changes, meant to encourage the development of more multifamily apartment buildings in U.S. cities. HUD secretary Ben Carson said in a statement that, “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 theory behind changing exclusionary zoning policies is that allowing developers to build denser buildings in more parts of the city increases supply, lowers costs, and connects more residents to transit and jobs. A similar philosophy inspired Minneapolis’s recent city-wide upzoning plan.
But is this too good to be true, coming from an administration that has proposed to drastically cut—or eliminate—funding for affordable housing? Diane Yentel, president and CEO of the National Low-Income Housing Coalition, expressed skepticism of the plan, noting in part that, “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.”