Affordable Housing

Biden's Build Back Better Plan Contains One Potentially Helpful Housing Program

Funding for affordable housing and grants to incentivize streamlining zoning laws could represent a policy win for YIMBYs.


President Joe Biden's Build Back Better Act, which has passed both the House and Senate as of Friday, is a remarkably optimistic piece of legislation, pledging to do a lot on a budget about a third the size of the original proposal (while still being, on a pure spending level, one of the most expensive pieces of legislation in years). One of the least offensive provisions of the bill, however, relates to housing.

Homelessness is a major issue in the U.S., and is inherently intertwined with the cost of housing. In fact, in a recent poll, respondents from the 20 metro areas that experienced the largest population growth between 2010–2019 listed both the cost of housing and homelessness as their top two concerns, and by almost identical margins (86 and 87 percent, respectively). The average cost of rent has increased nearly 20 percent within the last year alone, and since 2001, in nearly every state, rents have risen at a faster rate than incomes.

But simply offering rental assistance without a simultaneous increase in the supply of housing would only serve to exacerbate the cost problem, as a larger amount of money would chase after the exact same amount of inventory. In fact, the U.S. is currently as many as 5 million houses short of meeting estimated demand.

Of the roughly $150 billion which the Build Back Better Act appropriates toward housing, more than half is put toward dubious use, via rental assistance programs. About a third of that portion, though, is specifically tailored toward the construction or rehabilitation of more affordable housing units to increase the overall supply, which could help drive down costs.

In the same poll, which found broad concern among urban residents about housing affordability, comfortable majorities also expressed support for various measures intended to "mak[e] more affordable housing options available." Unfortunately, state and local governments in thrall to the concerns of vocal NIMBYs (short for "not in my backyard") tend to oppose any such development that could address a shortage of housing, even though zoning may be the single most consequential type of regulation in disadvantaging the poor.

The Build Back Better Act does fund the establishment of a "competitive grant program," the Unlocking Possibilities Program, to incentivize "streamlining regulatory requirements and shorten[ing] processes, [and] reform[ing] zoning codes." As with any grant program, its efficacy will be dictated by its implementation, but with more than $4.26 billion appropriated, there is plenty of breathing room to potentially make a difference.

In an ideal scenario, of course, there would be as few zoning restrictions as possible, allowing developers to simply respond to the needs of the community without requiring the government's stamp of approval. While public funding to incentivize a reduction or simplification of red tape is better than the status quo, it is still not a perfect solution.

Biden's overstuffed bill may be more flawed than advertised, but it does make some gestures toward correcting this one specific problem.

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  2. The Build Back Better Act does fund the establishment of a "competitive grant program," the Unlocking Possibilities Program, to incentivize "streamlining regulatory requirements and shorten[ing] processes, [and] reform[ing] zoning codes." As with any grant program, its efficacy will be dictated by its implementation...

    Any program statement that uses terms like "incentivize" is bureaucratic bullshit unless the "incentivization" includes a liberal application of a manually operated nail-driving apparatus to the cranial structure of aforementioned bureaucrats.

  3. represent a policy win for YIMBYs.

    Or a policy win for YIYBYs.

  4. Homelessness is a major issue in the U.S., and is inherently intertwined with the cost of housing.

    No it's not.

    1. But simply offering rental assistance without a simultaneous increase in the supply of housing would only serve to exacerbate the cost problem

      That is true, but there are many complex forces at work here that conspire to NOT lower the cost of housing.

      Just to give you an example of how intractable this problem is, allow me to offer up a situation and ask you how you think it would go:

      Politician knocking on doors has real plan to lower the "cost of housing". Knocks on typical resident of progressive enclave who likely believes the cost of housing is too high.

      Honest Prospective candidate: Hello sir (or madam) I'm running for mayor/council/state senate position X and I would like to detail my plan to reduce the cost of housing.

      Resident: Oh yes, please, let's hear it, housing costs are far too high.

      Candidate: [details plan.. insert WHATEVER you want or imagine could go in here, the details don't matter] and so, as you see here on the handy graph, when my plan is successful, the median sale price of homes in your neighborhood will have dropped by 42%.

      Resident: *turns pale* But... that's not what I think of when I think of affordable housing.

      Candidate: What do you think of, good citizen?

      Resident: *flustered* well, I guess. so... I guess I have this kind of idea where NEW housing units will be affordable and will drop in price, but existing occupied homes... like *swallows* mine will maintain and increase their value.

      Candidate: But... if the developers have to purchase existing land in this beautiful west coast city that's surrounded on three sides by water upon which every inch of land is already developed in some way they'll have to pay the current market rate, so that will keep the cost of housing high. We MUST lower the entire market rate to get housing under control.

      Resident: *thinks* but... surely there's some magical way to increase density by tearing down existing homes and building multi-family dwellings where the cost of the individual dwelling, subdivided is... somehow cheaper than it was in prior years.

      Candidate: Well, possibly but that's not easy to do. We'd have to upzone every neighborhood in the city, essentially wiping out single-family homes like yours, but that would probably drive the cost of land up. In fact, my predecessor who resigned went on record saying that to "incentivize the turnover and sale of single-family properties, he would start taxing those properties as if they were multi-family commercial apartments".

      Resident: Yes... I think I voted for him... but then I regretted it. Also, I'm appealing my property tax valuation this year... can you help me with that?

      1. Yup- in my town, every time there is a suggested development for anything but miles of single family dwellings, the existing home owners hit to fucking streets complaining about "greedy developers" "shifting traffic costs on homeowners" and "overcrowding our schools".

        My neighborhood is one of the few earlier communities in the city (from the 70s - 80s) and it has a mix of apartments, condos, town houses and houses. But there are so few high density dwellings being built in the city, that a 700s.f. 1 bedroom appartment is $2500 a month. It's absurd.

        The idea of forcing deregulation federal mandates is also absurd, mind you.

  5. The Libertarian case for big government wasteful spending. Keep digging there is surely a pony in there.

    1. ^THIS EXACTLY...
      Funding for ..... grants for.....

      AND the Constitutional Authority for this is WHERE.???!!!!!!???!?!?!!!!!!

      1. Constitution is dog whistle why do you hate girls & black & brown people?

        1. The definition of the USA is a dog whistle?
          Better just change the name of this nation to Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (the USSR) since that name is no longer taken.

    2. All the bad parts are trumps fault.

  6. As I predicted yesterday, if it will help put Blue voters in marginally Red districts, zoning changes will be in the "infrastructure" bill.

  7. There has never been anything that government has ever funded that has made it more affordable. When government subsidizes the purchase of anything- whether it is medical care, university or housing, the net result is to create more demand, which increases prices.

    Who the hell is running this magazine? For the love of god, who!?

    1. Overt, in state tuition at Univ of Florida is (state school) $6381.

      Tuition for Univ of Miami (private university) is $51930.

      This is typical for state vs private university tuitions, and no, the state does not subsidize to the tune of $45,000 per student per semester.

      Do the math.

      1. The cost of the private university tuition is driven by government loans and grants. This has been discussed ad-nauseum.

        If the government subsidized purchasers of iPhones, iPhones, sold by a private company (Apple) would cost $11,000.

        This doesn't take Univ. of Miami off any hooks, moral or otherwise, but when the purchasers of a good are subsidized, the price of that good mysteriously goes up.

        1. Diane, all universities receive grants and loans, public and private, so your response is irrelevant to the difference between the costs of tuition. This is nothing new by the way and without state universities the overwhelming majority of American degree holders - not to mention advancements through research and luring of talented and smart immigrants to our shores - would not have them.

      2. "Do the math."


        In 2009 the Federal Government takes over loans.

        * Between 2008–09 and 2018–19, prices for undergraduate tuition, fees, room, and board at public institutions rose 28 percent

        * prices at private nonprofit institutions rose 19 percent,

        * for-profit institutions were 6 percent lower in 2018–19 than in 2008–09

        These prices are AFTER inflation. So what should be happening as innovation makes teaching easier and cheaper, is costs go down. But in the public and non-profit institutions where they get students by offering awesome amenities like farm to table dorm cafeterias and free wifi, the prices have skyrocketed.

        1. Overt, that does not explain the historic fact that public universities are much cheaper than privates.

          1. That EXACTLY explains the historical fact....
            Throwing money at it didn't make it cheaper... It just made it more Expensive; Just like Massive money printing and debt causes Hyper-inflation.

            I swear the left has to be the most economically retarded people ever to be human. STOP thinking USD ('fiat') think RESOURCE!

            Who creates the resources??? NOT GOV-GUNS...

      3. Actually, an analysis a few years ago showed that San Jose State spend more $ per student than it cost to go to neighboring Santa Clara University.

        1. link please esteve?

      4. Nevermind "private universities" are STILL Nazi-Dictated by the B.O.E.

    2. "There has never been anything that government has ever funded that has made it more affordable."
      ^THIS; deserved a repeat.

      1. Cross your fingers and close your eyes when you make that wish TJJ

        1. No need; The mountains of historical evidence is everywhere.
          Perhaps you're the one with your eye's closed.

          "Everyone gets a House" (HUD) Housing Skyrockets
          "Everyone gets Healthcare" (Obumercare) Healthcare Skyrockets
          "Cash for Clunkers" Vehicles Skyrocket
          "Everyone deserves an Education" Education Skyrockets

          Heck, The more "Everyone Deserves" (to STEAL by Gov-Gun-Point) the Less affordable and harder to get it becomes.

          Then there's what's left of the free-market still pounding out deals on Amazon, eBay, Walmart, etc, etc, etc....

          1. When you really, really, really, want the opposite to be true, it IS possible to look at mountains of historical evidence and tell yourself that it means what you want it to mean.

            Just look at the statist in this thread as a textbook example.

            1. ... really, really, really, want the opposite to be true

              All for that desire to get POWER over others by pointing and threatening them with Gov-Guns.

              One would think societies would stop resorting to using the 'death' threat on others (like criminals) to survive but would make an effort to *EARN* their survival.

              Any excuse to STEAL.
              To Conquer and Consume.

  8. >>is a remarkably optimistic piece of legislation

    (D) doesn't do optimism.

    >>but with more than $4.26 billion appropriated, there is plenty of breathing room

    for fraud.

    1. So who’s building all these new and wonderful projects?
      Look at what happens when a natural disaster occurs. Suddenly everyone is a carpenter till the money runs out!!
      Government will not solve this problem with money!!!

  9. In an ideal scenario

    Ahh, to be young and dumb again.

  10. Returning to normalz!

    NEW YORK (AP) — The U.S. says that it’s inviting the global community to visit now that the government has ended the ban on travelers from 33 countries.

    In reality, however, it will still be difficult — if not impossible — for much of the globe to enter the country and experts say it will take years for travel to fully recover.

    For starters, half the world isn’t vaccinated and therefore doesn’t meet the U.S. requirement for visiting foreigners. So while many Europeans may now be able to come in, people from poorer countries where vaccines are scarce remain cut off, with limited exceptions.

    1. Easy. Hop on a plane to Mexico and come on in. Problem solved!

    2. Exceptions being those who walk through the desert to get here.

  11. One? That's a piss poor excuse for spending - how many dollars?


    "He says the extent to which local governments become eligible for tax credits or direct assistance for housing construction can be determined "by the local practices with regard to the zoning, with regard to density."

    So in other words, if a state or a town wants this federal money, they have a better chance of getting it if they change their zoning rules to allow for more affordable housing."

    So, build Section 8 housing and homeless encampments or no money. Why is Reason touting the facile repackaging of the Democrats' war on suburbia?

  13. For the record, I refuse to call myself a libertarian. I don't agree with the libertarian objection to zoning laws. When you buy a property, you buy it with the understanding that the zoning will remain the way it is. Zoning is part of the value of property and if people knew that re-zoning was coming they wouldn't pay so much. If the federal government demands (or encourages) re-zoning, it's pulling the economic rug out from under people. To me, it's another way in which the federal government can harm people economically.

    Note that if property owners entered into private compacts intended to serve same purpose as zoning laws, present day governments wouldn't tolerate that for a minute. There is no viable libertarian alternative to zoning laws.

    1. Yet if you want control of 20-acres you should've bought 20-acres.

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