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Uncle Sam’s Assault on the Suburbs

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Uncle Sam’s Assault on the Suburbs

June 11, 2015

If the House of Representatives has its way, the suburban way of life will be safe once again—for now.

This week the House of Representatives passed Rep. Paul Gosar’s (AZ-04) amendment to the Transportation and Housing and Urban Development Departments’ appropriations bill.  Its passage  successfully prohibited HUD from implementing and enforcing the intrusive “Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing” rule, which  would force communities to build high-density low-income public housing more common to cities.

Now the amendment will go to the Senate. Rep.  Gosar’s staffer told me that he is optimistic that the Senate will also pass the amendment, but will refrain from speculating about the outcome.

Advocates of the AFFH praise the rule as an extension of the Fair Housing Act of 1968. Like much of the Civil Rights Act, the Fair Housing Act (Title VIII of the CRA) prohibits the discrimination of buyers or renters of housing based upon race, color, national origin, religion, sex, familial status, or disability. So it is already illegal for housing developments to discriminate and forcibly segregate based on race or ethnicity.

The AFFH rule would go a step further. Rather than simply prohibiting discrimination, this rule would mandate integration of minorities into suburban communities in an attempt to overcome so-called historic patterns of segregation. The rule could force all communities, even those with no record of discrimination, to build public housing targeted to ethnic and racial minorities.

The goal of desegregation is a noble one. Children who grow up in suburban communities tend to have greater levels of economic opportunity and education attainment. Living in a more affluent neighborhood can allow low-income families to break the cycle of poverty, increasing economic mobility. Encouraging ethnic and racial diversity in more affluent neighborhoods can reduce income and educational inequalities.

The rule, however, is likely more than just an attempt to combat ethnic and racial segregation. Stanley Kurtz claims that the rule “is really about changing the way Americans live.” He argues that the broader goal of the AFFH rule is to force “economic integration,” not to promote ethnic and racial diversity. The central planners in the Obama administration want to force families into densely-populated housing, including a reliance on public transportation instead of individual automobiles.

This kind of integration has already been attempted at a regional level in San Francisco. California’s Sustainable Communities and Climate Protection Act of 2008 mandated the creation of the “Plan Bay Area,” a blueprint for controlling the development of housing in the San Francisco area for up to 30 years. Under the guise of combating global warming, Plan Bay Area forces development into the existing “urban footprint” of the area. This mandate essentially prohibits the creation of new suburban areas.

In 2012, the agencies behind Plan Bay Area were awarded a “Sustainable Communities Grant” by the Obama administration. The official goal of the grant is to encourage connections between jobs, housing, and transportation in order to direct new residents into already prosperous communities. The broader and less obvious goal, Kurtz argues,  is to create Manhattan-style “priority development areas.”

Rules behind the grants generally require their recipients to partner with local organizations, many of whom have a leftist agenda. Some of these groups are even “grassroots” organizations that rally support for the urbanizing of the suburbs in San Francisco.

If you thought Plan Bay Area is bad, the AFFH rule is even worse. It would be applicable to the whole country. Any local community which has taken federal Community Redevelopment Grants would be subjected to the will of HUD. The department already has a regulation that allows it to develop low-income housing anywhere in that community if the community has received money from a Community Redevelopment Grant.

Not only does the proposed rule threaten the existence of some suburban neighborhoods, it abandons a core principle of our Constitution: federalism. If implemented, the AFFH rule would allow HUD, a federal agency, to override the zoning power of local governments. Without the ability for local and state governments to make their own sovereign decisions, the balancing power of federalism is lost.

The implementation of the rule would also be expensive. Land and development costs in already prosperous communities dwarf those of more impoverished areas. This leads to both higher prices and a lower number of housing units. In addition, HUD’s own estimates show that each assessment under the rule would require 200 hours of staff time, further increasing the cost of development.

At best, the AFFH rule represents a power grab by benevolent federal bureaucrats attempting to improve the lives of poor and minority Americans. At worst, it is an attempt by social engineers to urbanize American suburbs.

The proposed rule will be hotly debated in the Senate, and may even become an issue in the current presidential campaign cycle. It is now up to the Senate to pass the Gosar amendment to stop this rule from becoming a reality once and for all.


Jonathan Nelson is a contributor to Economics21.

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