The pro-housing YIMBY (Yes In My Backyard) movement has finally arrived in Washington D.C., and it's being led by Republicans.
On Tuesday, President Donald Trump signed an executive order creating a new White House council that will study and eliminate rules that increase the costs of housing construction.
"This is a matter of supply and demand, and we have to increase the supply of affordable homes by changing the cost side of the equation," said Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Secretary Ben Carson, who will lead the new council. "Removing overly burdensome rules and regulations will reduce housing costs."
A number of other cabinet-level secretaries, including those for the departments of Labor, Transportation, and the Treasury, will also sit on the council.
The executive order identifies a number of regulatory burdens—from zoning codes and growth management controls to labor and environmental regulations—that the council will try to quantify the effect of, and propose ways of mitigating.
Federal officials on the council are instructed to reduce, where possible, their departments' own regulatory burdens. The council will also work with officials on the state and local level—where the vast majority of housing regulations are crafted—to do the same.
Trump's executive order comes just a week after Sen. Todd Young (R–Ind.) introduced the YIMBY Act, which will require local and state governments applying for HUD grants to identify ways they are making their zoning codes less "discriminatory," or explain why they're keeping current regulations in place.
Young's bill suggests a number of policies grantees could adopt, including increasing density limits, eliminating off-street parking requirements for new developments, making more home construction by-right (meaning it can be built without discretionary government approval), and streamlining permitting processes.
Local governments would also be encouraged to eliminate restrictions on home businesses and AirBnB-style short-term rentals under Young's bill.
"Burdensome and discriminatory local zoning and land use policies drive up housing costs in communities across America," said Young in a statement following the introduction of his bill, saying that these policies prevent people from moving to high-opportunity areas.
The Wall Street Journal reports that housing construction per household is at its lowest level in 60 years. A report released yesterday from Harvard's Joint Center for Housing Studies found that the U.S. built 260,000 too few homes in 2018. Housing affordability problems are particularly acute in coastal cities like San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York, where restrictions on development can be exceedingly strict.
That a Republican White House and Republican members of Congress are bringing attention to this issue, and correctly fingering excessive regulation as the source of the problem, is welcome.
The chances that either this new White House council or Young's bill will have a direct impact on housing costs are nevertheless pretty slim, says Jenny Schuetz, a housing policy expert at the Brookings Institution.
"Because most regulatory barriers are adopted at the local level, the federal government has relatively few direct levers, especially on the most exclusionary places," writes Schuetz in an email.
Often, the federal government is able to strongarm local governments into changing policies they have exclusive control over by attaching strings to federal grants.
In a sense, this is what Young's bill is trying to do by requiring grantees to report on their zoning policies. Yet the senator's YIMBY bill is pretty toothless, given that these grantees aren't actually required to change any policies to get federal money.
Both Sens. Elizabeth (D–Mass.) and Cory Booker (D–N.J.) have proposed more muscular policies on this front.
Booker's HOME Act from 2018 would require HUD grantees to actually demonstrate they were loosening zoning regulations in order to get federal money. Warren's housing bill from last year includes a $10 billion grant program that would pay out to local governments who reform their zoning codes to allow for more housing. These localities could then use that money on whatever they wanted.
Both of the senators' bills come with billions in additional federal spending, either for public housing construction (in Warren's bill), or rental subsidies (in Booker's).
Schuetz has previously said even these more robust incentives might not do the trick, as local governments with the most restrictive zoning practices also tend to be wealthier areas that receive little to no HUD funding.
She also expressed skepticism that the Trump administration—which has proposed raising rents in federal public housing—is seriously concerned with the plight of poor tenants.
A similar cynicism about the White House's motives was expressed by Danielle Yentel, president and CEO of the National Low-Income Housing Coalition—which advocates for increased federal housing funding—who said in a statement that this new council was "an attempt to achieve large-scale deregulation while distracting from other efforts to exacerbate the housing crisis."
(Though Yentel fails to mention it, the Trump Administration's tariffs on imported steel and lumber are also raising the costs of constructing new housing.)
Any effort by the Trump Administration to address housing affordability issues with deregulation will likely be met with similar resistance from housing advocates who see increased federal funding as the primary tool for bringing down housing costs.
Salim Furth, a housing policy expert with the free market Mercatus Center at George Mason University, thinks the very fact that conservatives are even talking about these issues at the federal level brings a much-needed signal boost to the cause of housing reform.
"What Washington does have is visibility. When [Carson] says he's a YIMBY, it makes far more noise than when [San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer] or [Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey] does, even though the mayors have more policy influence," wrote Furth on Twitter yesterday.
"Sen. Young's bill is in that spirit. He's laying out a marker: YIMBY can be a mainstream conservative goal," Furth added.
Only time will tell whether either Young's bill or Trump's new White House council will have any appreciable impact on the currently dreadful state of housing affordability in the country.
That conservatives are starting to talk more about free-market solutions to the country's housing affordability problems—and are offering solutions that don't involve billions in new federal spending—is a welcome development.