Taking on Class and Racial Discrimination in Housing

AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin

Senator Cory Booker on Capitol Hill

Zoning laws are not usually the stuff of which presidential campaigns are made. But Senator Cory A. Booker, who is often talked about as a presidential contender, says bad zoning laws are making housing more segregated and less affordable, and he has just introduced legislation to do something about it. 

Booker was born in Washington, D.C., one year after the passage of the 1968 Fair Housing Act. That legislation, which outlawed racial discrimination in the sale and rental of housing, helped make it possible for Booker’s parents, African American executives, to become the first black family to reside in Harrington Park, New Jersey, an affluent white community outside of Newark with strong public schools. Those schools helped launch Booker to Stanford, Oxford, Yale Law and beyond.

But as a child Booker quickly became aware that a single law couldn’t wipe out entrenched inequalities of housing opportunity.  He visited relatives living in predominantly black communities, he told me in an interview yesterday, and “clearly saw that something was wrong,” especially the limits on “the opportunity [to attend] great public schools.” As a young adult, he learned about the Mount Laurel litigation in New Jersey, which exposed the way in which municipal zoning laws were employed to “segregate our state by income as well as race.”

Local ordinances that ban apartment buildings from certain residential areas, or designate a minimum lot size for single family homes, don’t explicitly discriminate by race, but they effectively exclude families of modest means from entire neighborhoods—and school districts. These laws promote economic segregation by government fiat. People of color are hit especially hard. In fact, exclusionary zoning laws that discriminate by income spread rapidly, historian Richard Rothstein has noted, shortly after explicit zoning by race was struck down by the Supreme Court.  

Moreover, exclusionary zoning feeds the affordable housing crisis. Restrictive zoning laws drive up prices by artificially restricting the supply of housing. When developers are limited in the number of new units they can build on a particular parcel of land, the basic laws of supply and demand suggest existing housing will become more expensive.

Yesterday, Booker introduced federal legislation—the Housing, Opportunity, Mobility and Equity (HOME) Act—to address this key piece of the Fair Housing Act’s unfinished business. The bill would promote more inclusive zoning policies in order to make housing more affordable and less segregated.

Under Booker’s proposal, states, cities and counties receiving funding under the $3.3 billion federal Community Development Block Grant program for public infrastructure and housing would be required to develop strategies to reduce barriers to housing development and increase the supply of housing. Plans could include authorizing more high density and multifamily zoning and relaxing lot size restrictions. The goal is for affordable housing units to comprise not less than 20 percent of new housing stock.

The legislation is being introduced as the twin challenges of housing affordability and economic housing segregation are reaching a critical stage in America.  

Rising rents, coupled with stagnant wages, have created what the Urban Institute has called “the worst affordable housing crisis in decades.” For 80 years, federal policy has suggested that no more than 30 percent of a family’s income should be used for housing, yet nearly half of renters today pay rent that exceeds that share of their income. “There is not a county in America,” said Booker, “where you can make the minimum wage and afford a two-bedroom apartment.”

At the same time, our nation’s housing has become more economically segregated, according to research from Stanford University. As then-President Barack Obama noted in 2015, “what used to be racial segregation now mirrors itself in class segregation.” Economic housing segregation is a major impediment to equal opportunity and social mobility, because a growing body of research shows that where people live impacts their access to good schools, jobs and health care.

Housing also has enormous implications for criminal justice, Booker said. He and his friends in affluent Harrington Park could act out and be fine. “But you have a very different criminal justice system in Harrington Park, or Stanford’s campus, than you do in Newark,” where committing petty crimes can have catastrophic consequences for a young person. 

Potential presidential candidates on the progressive side have begun diving in on the first half of the equation—the affordability question. As The Washington Post recently reported, Senator Kamala Harris, for example, has introduced legislation to provide a refundable tax credit to renters who make less than $100,000 a year and spend more than 30 percent of their income on rent. (Booker’s legislation also includes a similar refundable tax credit for those who spend more than 30 percent of their income on rent.)

But critics point out that proposals to put more money in the hands of consumers, while helpful, do nothing to address the exclusionary government zoning policies that are a root cause of the affordability crisis and rising economic segregation. 

Booker’s legislation, in addition to encouraging governments to reduce restrictions on lot sizes and allow the construction of multifamily units, would also encourage jurisdictions to reduce parking requirements and restrictions on accessory dwelling units—small living units adjacent to larger homes. Jurisdictions would also have incentives to allow “by-right development,” so that projects that meet zoning requirements could be administratively approved rather than being subjected to lengthy hearings. “Inclusionary zoning” policies, which allow developers to build more units when they agree to set aside some for affordable housing, would also be encouraged. Jurisdictions would also have an incentive to adopt prohibitions on “source of income discrimination,” which occurs when landlords refuse to rent to people using publicly funded housing vouchers. One provision in the bill—perhaps its most controversial—encourages jurisdictions to ban the practice of landlords asking potential renters about their criminal history. 

The HOME Act doesn’t require that jurisdictions adopt all of these reforms. “It is a light touch,” Booker says.  “We’re just basically saying, through our legislation, that you have to have a plan” for making zoning more inclusive. “And the components of the plan are on you.”

Some may object to the idea of the federal government getting involved in local zoning decisions. But the U.S. Supreme Court crossed that line many years ago when it struck down racial zoning.  And Booker says the federal government has a two-part responsibility. First, because the federal government’s redlining policies helped create segregation in the first place, the new legislation “should be seen through the lens of restorative justice.” Even if that history had not existed, Booker says, we “have a national crisis with affordability,” which requires “that the federal government should come up with national solutions.”

When I asked Booker about the bill’s political prospects and the uphill battle likely to face even the most modest efforts at reforming exclusionary zoning laws, he said, “it will always be impossible until we raise people’s awareness of the problem. … We have a real housing crisis in our country that millions and millions of Americans are feeling but it is not on the policy dashboard of America.” The legislation seeks to jumpstart the conversation.

Whatever the bill’s ultimate fate in Congress, the fact that Booker – a politician long identified with the corporate wingof the Democratic Party—is introducing legislation on housing affordability and segregation may speak to the changing mood of the party’s electorate. In the past, Booker has rushed to the defense of private equity managers and supported private school vouchers. But more recently, he has endorseda pilot experiment in full employment, championedMedicare for all, and signed on to making public colleges debt freefor students. When an ambitious political figure like Booker is willing to challenge exclusionary zoning—a disgraceful practice that most politicians have nevertheless been unwilling to tackle—we are surely living in interesting times.


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