28 August 2020

How Donald Trump went from YIMBY to NIMBY

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Two of the more surprising speakers at the Republican National Convention this week were Mark and Patricia McCloskey. You may have seen their photograph online: the preppily-dressed white couple who pointed a pistol and an assault rifle at a crowd of protesters outside their house in St Louis, Missouri, in June. 

The moment soon became a political flashpoint, with the couple presented variously as the personification of white privilege or Americans exercising their constitutional rights to defend their property (St Louis police have since confiscated the weapons). In their primetime RNC slot on Tuesday night, the McCloskeys talked about more than just law and order. Alongside warnings about various Marxist plots to destroy America, their dispatch from the front lines of the culture war also gave surprising prominence to housing policy. 

“They’re not satisfied with spreading the chaos and violence into our communities,” said Patricia McCloskey. “They want to abolish the suburbs altogether by ending single-family home zoning. This forced rezoning will bring crime, lawlessness and low quality apartments into now thriving suburban neighbourhoods.”

“Save the suburbs” is an increasingly prominent theme of Donald Trump’s re-election bid. “I am happy to inform all of the people living their Suburban Lifestyle Dream that you will no longer be bothered or financially hurt by having low income housing built in your neighborhood,” he tweeted recently.

With Democrats and Republicans increasingly sorted geographically, the Democratic base growing ever more urban and the Republicans more rural, the suburbs have never been more politically significant. But even by Trump’s standards, the appeal to suburban voters’ economic interests isn’t exactly tactful. And you hardly need to have suffered your way through White Fragility to detect the eardrum-busting dog whistle in much of the Republican rhetoric around defending suburbia.

Whatever this unsubtle approach’s political consequences, the culture-war messaging has snuffed out one of the few bright spots in Trump’s economic agenda: a YIMBY effort to let Americans build more homes.

In the early Trump years, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson — the only black member of Trump’s cabinet — had America’s planning laws in his crosshairs. In 2017, Carson suspended the Obama administration’s Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule (AFFH), which tied federal funds to a duty for local governments to consider their neighbourhood’s demographic composition and take meaningful action against discrimination and segregation in housing. 

The Trump administration took issue with the measure for two reasons: first, it created cumbersome bureaucratic hurdles and, second, they thought that the best way to make housing fairer and more affordable was to tear up the rules that entrench de facto segregation, burden Americans with high housing costs and choke off growth in and around American cities.

In other words, the difference of opinion was actually a fairly conventional left-right debate over what tools to use to solve what both sides agreed was a problem.   

In 2018, Carson pledged to “take on the NIMBYs” by looking at “increasing the supply of affordable housing by reducing onerous zoning regulations”. Only last summer, Trump himself signed an executive order “establishing a White House Council on Eliminating Regulatory Barriers to Affordable Housing”.  

The material outcomes that followed were ultimately underwhelming, but at least the tentative steps were in the right direction.

Fast-forward a year and things look a lot less encouraging. The Trump campaign has recast opposition to Biden’s proposed reintroduction of AFFH as a far-left attack on the American way of life. This is the specific policy at the heart of the overheated suburbs rhetoric.

In a joint Wall Street Journal op-ed earlier this month, Carson and Trump warned of “a once-unthinkable agenda” that would “abolish single-family zoning, compel the construction of high-density ‘stack and pack’ apartment buildings in residential neighbourhoods, and forcibly transform neighbourhoods across America so they look and feel the way far-left ideologues and technocratic bureaucrats think they should”.

It’s one thing to oppose federal intervention in local decisions, but Carson and Trump even lament decisions that have the approval of the community, pointing out that “Minneapolis abolished single-family zoning this year — a few months before it voted to abolish its police force”.

To spell it out a little more bluntly: two Republican politicians apparently take issue with a locally made decision to deregulate housing, allow the market to work its magic and deliver affordable homes. 

Thankfully, the culture wars’ rules of engagement dictate that every action must have an equal and opposite reaction. And if there is any hope for YIMBYs in Trump’s racially charged weaponisation of NIMBYism, it lies in the possibility that support for strict planning regulation becomes less acceptable on the American left.

Trump’s defence of the suburbs reveals the close relationship between racial segregation and planning laws: the divided status quo that Trump wants to protect is, unavoidably, the product of regulation. Maybe the woke-approved approach to housing is about to become radically free-market, with single-family zoning — one of the biggest barriers to the greater density America needs — swept aside not by libertarian Republican but progressive Democrats. Or maybe that is overly optimistic.

The left villainise greedy developers rather than “far-left ideologues” when they oppose new housing, but the arguments are two sides of the same coin — and to claim otherwise grows harder by the Presidential tweet.  

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Oliver Wiseman is US Editor of The Critic.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.