If You Care About Social Justice, You Have to Care About Zoning

It happened in 1968, when Mr. Biden’s hero, Robert Kennedy, brought together working-class Black, Latino, and white constituencies in a presidential campaign that championed a liberalism without elitism and a populism without racism. It happened again in 1997 and 2009 in Texas, when Republican legislators representing white working-class voters and Democrats representing Black and Hispanic constituencies came together to support (and then to defend) the Texas top 10 percent plan to admit the strongest students in every high school to the University of Texas at Austin, despite the opposition of legislators representing wealthy white suburban districts that had dominated admissions for decades. And a similar coalition appears to be coming together in California, over the issue of exclusionary zoning. State Senator Scott Wiener, who has been trying to legalize multifamily living spaces, told me that Republican and Democratic legislators representing working-class communities have supported reform, while the opponents have one thing in common: They represent wealthier constituents who “wanted to keep certain people out of their community.”

Opinion Debate What should the Biden administration prioritize?

  • Edward L. Glaeser, an economist, writes that the president should use his infrastructure plan as an opportunity to “break the country out of its zoning straitjacket”
  • The Editorial Board argues the administration should return to the Iran nuclear deal, and that “at this point, the hard-line approach defies common sense.”
  • Jonathan Alter writes that Biden needs to do now what F.D.R. achieved during the depression: “restore faith that the long-distrusted federal government can deliver rapid, tangible achievements.”
  • Gail Collins, Opinion columnist, has a few questions about gun violence: “One is, what about the gun control bills? The other is, what’s with the filibuster? Is that all the Republicans know how to do?”

Taking on exclusionary zoning also begins to address two other challenges the Biden administration has identified: the housing affordability crisis and climate change. Economists from across the political spectrum agree that zoning laws that ban anything but single-family homes artificially drive up prices by limiting the supply of housing that can be built in a region. At a time when the Covid-19 pandemic has left many Americans jobless and people are struggling to make rent or pay their mortgages, it is incomprehensible that ubiquitous government zoning policies would be permitted to make the housing affordability crisis worse by driving prices unnaturally higher.

Likewise, there is widespread agreement that laws banning the construction of multifamily housing promote damage to the planet. Single-family-exclusive zoning pushes new development further and further out from central cities, which lengthens commutes and increases the emissions of greenhouse gases. This is an especially big problem for employees who cannot work remotely at a computer. Families should always have the freedom to make personal choices about their living arrangements, but as the planet heats up, it is bizarre that government would explicitly prohibit construction of the most environmentally friendly options.

It is clear that the federal government has the authority to act on this issue. While zoning laws are locally constructed, the federal government has long cited its powers to regulate interstate commerce as a rationale for pursuing important aims: combating racial discrimination in zoning, protecting religious institutions from discriminatory zoning and overriding zoning laws to site cellphone towers.

Enactment of Mr. Biden’s proposal for federal grants to encourage local reforms would be an important first step and could provide a significant incentive for change, just as President Barack Obama’s race-to-the-top program for education helped alter state and local behavior toward charter schools. But there are many other additional opportunities Mr. Biden should explore.

In December 2020, The Century Foundation, where I work, assembled more than 20 of the nation’s leading thinkers on housing over Zoom — elected officials, civil rights activists, libertarians and researchers — to discuss eight possible options. The alternatives included reinstating and strengthening the Obama administration’s 2015 Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule that requires local governments to begin taking steps to dismantle segregation, as well as Mr. Obama’s 2013 guidance making clear that unjustified policies that have a racially discriminatory “disparate impact” are illegal even absent discriminatory intent. Another set of policies would require states, cities and counties receiving existing federal funding for public infrastructure and housing to develop strategies to reduce exclusionary zoning.

But Mr. Biden should go even further and create what is known as a private right of action — comparable to the one found in the 1968 Fair Housing Act — to allow victims of economically discriminatory government zoning policies to sue in federal court, just as victims of racial discrimination currently can. This Economic Fair Housing Act, which I have proposed and the Equitable Housing Institute has developed into statutory language, makes clear that state-sponsored economic discrimination is wrong, whether or not it has a racially disparate impact. And because it is wrong, the law should apply in every town and state in the country — not just those that want to participate in the new federal funding programs Mr. Biden’s proposal would provide.