Housing Policy

Cory Booker Understands Restrictive Zoning Codes Are a Problem. How Much Will That Matter for His Presidential Run?

All three Senate Democrats running for president have distinctive housing reform proposals.


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Sen. Cory Booker's (D–New Jersey) announcement that he will be seeking his party's nomination for president has set off a flurry of speculation about the candidate's ideology, chances of success, and whether or not his drug dealer friend T-Bone was ever real. Less discussed is the senator's views on the increasingly salient issue of housing.

As rents and home prices continue to rise for likely Democratic primary voters in progressive, coastal cities, candidates for the party's nomination are increasingly expected to peddle some sort of solution.

All three sitting senators running for the Democratic 2020 nomination, including Booker, as well as Elizabeth Warren (D–Mass.) and Kamala Harris (D–Calif.), have introduced housing bills that provide a glimpse of how they'll approach the issue.

Booker's bill—the Housing, Opportunity, Mobility, and Equity or (HOME) Act—was introduced back in August 2018, and would do two major things.

Firstly, it would offer renters making less than 80 percent of area median income (which usually qualifies one for affordable housing or federal housing assistance) and spending more than 30 percent of their income on rent, a tax credit worth whatever amount they are spending above that 30 percent threshold.

The tax credit would be refundable, meaning even those with no federal income tax burden could still benefit from it.

Booker's bill would also condition federal Community Development Block Grants (CDBG)—a federal housing grant program with a rather spotty track record—on localities adopting "inclusionary" land use policies designed to increase housing supply and access.

The HOME Act includes a laundry list of policies that might satisfy this requirement, including a lot of things libertarians could get behind like upzoning, eliminating off-street parking requirements, eliminating height requirements, streamlining permitting, and even making development "by-right" (meaning local bureaucrats wouldn't have the discretion to shoot down a code-conforming project).

Booker's bill would reward localities for adopting a number of more interventionist policies, including increasing the number of rent-controlled units, banning landlords from asking prospective tenant about their criminal history, and taxing vacant land.

A free marketer's dream bill it is not, but the focus on removing local restrictions on housing supply are welcome nonetheless says Nick Zaiac, commercial freedom fellow at the R Street Institute. Zaiac tells Reason "CDBG funds have been used for pretty nasty urban renewal type decisions in the past. Having more rules on them and how their used would probably be a good thing."

By threatening to take away funding from more restrictive municipalities, Booker's bill includes a lot more stick compared to his carrot-offering competitors in the Democratic primary, says Zaiac.

Warren's housing bill, also introduced last year, would have set up a $10 billion fund to reward communities that made development easier, but her bill did not threaten to take any federal funding away from cities that didn't play ball.

That blunted its effectiveness, making it on the whole less palatable than Booker's. That's particularly true when one considers that Warren's bill also called for an additional $500 billion in federal subsidies to affordable housing construction over ten years, nearly doubling current levels of federal housing spending.

Harris' housing bill, by contrast, totally punts on the question of local restrictions on development. Instead, the California senator's proposal would issue refundable tax credits to cost-burdened renters making as much as $125,000 a year. Rather than make housing more affordable, this approach would likely just raise costs for renters by subsidizing demand, while doing nothing to address restrictions on supply.

To be clear, there is little that the federal government could or even should do when it comes to housing policy, which remains largely in the control of state and local governments. It's also true that Booker's bill includes a lot of new spending and regulatory string-pulling.

Nevertheless, his housing bill shows that he has a keener sense of what is driving up rents and home prices than many in his party, and is more willing to rely on market mechanisms to bring housing costs down.