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It’s Time to Abolish Single-Family Zoning

Suburbia is built on federal subsidies. Is that conservative?

When it comes to housing policy, we conservatives run the risk of becoming a caricature of ourselves, long on reactionary impulse but short on principle. In a recent National Review headline, “Biden and Dems are Set To Abolish the Suburbs,” Stanley Kurtz leads a parade of incoherence on the topic.

What has Kurtz and others so exercised is the Obama-era Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing (AFFH) regulation and the potential that a President Biden will use it to destroy the suburbs and all that is sacred in this country. In a bit of melodrama, Kurtz contends:

Since the Pilgrims first landed, our story has been of a people who chose how and where to live, and who governed themselves when they got there. Self-government in a layered federalist system allowing for local control right down to the township is what made America great. If Biden and the Democrats win, that key to our greatness could easily go by the boards.

What is allegedly at stake is the ability of cities to artificially restrict the development of property through zoning. If you’re conservative in your disposition but don’t know Kurtz or this line of reasoning, you might assume that he is against zoning regulations. After all, there is no greater distortion of the market than local zoning codes, and there are few bureaucracies doing more harm to property rights and freedom than local zoning offices.

That assumption would be wrong. What is at stake here for Kurtz is the sanctity of single-family zoning, the ability of suburban governments to deploy this repressive land regulation on America’s suburban development pattern.

The first of many ironies, of course, is that single-family zoning became the standard for American suburbs during the New Deal when the Roosevelt administration, through various programs such as the Home Owners Loan Corporation, required it for home refinancing assistance.

These onerous regulations were further mandated for new construction by the Federal Housing Administration as well as the government-sponsored enterprises Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

So if you want federal support for your housing, build a single-family home. If you want to live in that downtown shop with the house on the second floor, convert your house to a two- or three-unit building and rent it out—or do any number of normal and reasonable things that humans had been doing with their property for centuries to build their own wealth and prosperity—don’t expect assistance from the government.

Yet now that we’ve lived with this artificial distortion for a couple of generations, and piled on others like the mortgage-interest tax deduction, some strange conservative instinct kicks in to defend this bankrupt institution. In reality, the Pilgrims built a traditional town surrounded by farmland. Our government paid us to move to the suburbs. Invoking the memory of the former to defend the latter is an historical absurdity.

It’s important to understand here that Kurtz is not suggesting that “Biden and the Dems” are coming for your precious zoning regulations unilaterally. No, whatever initiative they are proposing to do is going to go down the same old way they tricked us into the set of regulations we’re now defending—by dangling subsidies. From Kurtz:

AFFH works by holding HUD’s Community Development Block Grants hostage to federal-planning demands. Suburbs won’t be able to get the millions of dollars they’re used to in HUD grants unless they eliminate single-family zoning and densify their business districts.

So, suburban governments, you won’t get the subsidy this time unless you repeal the regulation we required you to enact decades ago to get the subsidy we were offering back then. And we oppose this today because we are conservatives?

For those of you who aren’t motivated to defend repressive zoning regulations and the chance to receive federal housing subsidies, Kurtz alludes to the sacred subsidy of suburban living: federal transportation spending:

[Senator Cory] Booker wants to hold suburban zoning hostage not only to HUD grants, but to the federal transportation grants used by states to build and repair highways. It may be next to impossible for suburbs to opt out of those state-run highway repairs. Otherwise, suburban roads will deteriorate and suburban access to major arteries will be blocked.

Yes, it might be impossible for suburbs to opt-out of this because they are wholly dependent on federal transportation subsidies. The Highway Trust Fund has run billion-dollar deficits for years. There is a net transfer of transportation dollars from blue states to red states, from big cities to suburbs. Suburbs use federal transportation dollars for growth in a Ponzi-scheme financial arrangement. Suburban development patterns are ridiculously expensive to sustain, with more infrastructure per living unit at much lower financial return

The suburbs run on federal subsidies. Without them, America’s suburbs would have to become more financially productive. They would need to get greater returns per foot on public infrastructure investment. That would mean repealing repressive zoning regulations, allowing the market to respond to supply and demand signals for housing. It would also mean allowing the “little downtowns” Kurtz fears to form where demand for them exists. Isn’t that what is supposed to happen with self-government and local control?

All this would have to happen or the suburbs would go away because they can’t exist without excessive and ongoing federal subsidy.

The progressive left has discovered that single-family zoning has racist underpinnings. That’s great, because we should now have no problem finding common cause for repealing this most distorting of regulations, one that the federal government never should have forced cities to adopt to begin with.

In fact, the conservative thing for suburban leaders to do here is to not wait for the federal government to tempt us with more handouts, but to go ahead and show those progressives running the big cities that we live by our principles, that we embrace vibrant markets and free people, by preemptively repealing single-family zoning.

Charles Marohn, the founder and president of Strong Towns, has spoken in hundreds of cities and towns across North America. His recent book is  Strong Towns: A Bottom-Up Revolution to Rebuild American Prosperity.