Zoning isn’t a partisan issue — why is Trump making it one?
At the Republican National Convention, the strangest appearance was the McCloskeys — the wealthy St. Louis couple who pulled guns on peaceful protestors walking by their house. Among other claims, they declared that if Joe Biden wins the presidency, he would “abolish the suburbs” through zoning changes that “would bring crime, lawlessness, and low-quality apartments into now-thriving suburban neighborhoods.”
This might be the first time that zoning has come up at a national political convention — in part because zoning is a decidedly state and local issue. But it’s also not a particularly partisan one. It should be possible for both parties to agree on common-sense zoning reforms that can work better for all of us than the current regime.
The current regime fails all of us. Some aspects of zoning, including single-family zoning, were motivated in part to ensure segregation. Many communities were even explicitly zoned by race until the Supreme Court outlawed the practice in 1917. For Democrats, then zoning reforms that reverse segregation and break down barriers for people to move to high-resources neighborhoods are attractive.
But Republicans should welcome zoning reforms, too. Currently, some zoning requirements unnecessarily drives up the cost of development and result in lengthy delays for developers. Pro-business Republicans should cheer reforms that make it easier for people to maximize the economic value of their property. They should push for zoning reforms that reduce parking requirements and streamline permitting procedures for housing developers. This would accelerate the pace and profitability of development — and create a housing supply, too.
Similarly, Republicans should embrace reforms that promote accessory apartments in single-family areas. These are small units on the same lot as a single-family home, which can be rented out. Even the McCloskeys appear to rent out a modular home on their property.
The de-politicization of zoning isn’t a novel idea. This summer, the State Senates of both Vermont and Massachusetts unanimously adopted zoning reforms that loosen constraints on housing production. We are trying to replicate the bipartisan successes of our New England neighbors in Connecticut, through and effort called DesegregateCT. But we cannot let the distracting politicization of zoning overtake the trend across many states and cities for common-sense zoning reforms that can help us meet equity and economic goals at once.
The McCloskeys are all too familiar: hypocrites that benefit from the very things they say they despise. They are every “not-in-my-backyard” protestor who complains about affordable housing projects at zoning hearings around the country. The irony about the McCloskeys’ appearance was that they live in the heart of St. Louis, albeit on a “private street” built to keep out the city — and that they are the ones who have been terrorizing neighbors with a series of lawsuits and property destruction — including destroying beehives of children hoping to produce honey for Rosh Hashanah. They are who other people should avoid — not the peaceful families they demonize.
But in representing the Republican party, they are at least intellectually consistent with the party’s initial support for zoning a hundred years ago. It was Republican Herbert Hoover who used his authority as the Secretary of the Department of Commerce to create a “standard zoning enabling act” that all 50 states used as templates for their zoning laws. The result was a century’s worth of unmitigated disaster for people of color and the poor. Later, as president, Hoover withheld significant relief for the poor during the Great Depression, forcibly “repatriated” Mexican Americans to Mexico, and ran up the national deficit. Sound familiar? Trump and his sycophantic convention speakers are cut from Hoover’s cloth.
It’s too bad zoning hasn’t evolved to prevent bullies and boors.
Sara C. Bronin is an architect and law professor at the University of Connecticut. Bronin leads Desegregate Connecticut, a coalition of over 30 organizations addressing housing disparities.