Democrats Hear the ‘Yes in My Backyard’ Message

Eye-popping housing costs have convinced some presidential candidates that looser zoning should be a national cause.

apartment construction
Mark Humphrey / AP

Last week, Amy Klobuchar became the latest Democratic presidential hopeful to say out loud that cities and towns need to let people build more housing. She joined Cory Booker, Julián Castro, and Elizabeth Warren in proposing a more active federal role in getting state and local governments to loosen zoning rules—a topic that, up to now, has not figured prominently in campaigns for the White House.

The four candidates are demonstrating how much traction the YIMBY movement—the “yes in my backyard” campaign to roll back bans on new houses and apartments—has gained in Democratic policy circles. They and other Democratic candidates are sending an important message: A housing crunch in metro areas where tens of millions of Americans live is the kind of problem a president should worry about.

Whenever housing becomes an issue on the national political stage, it’s a sign that middle-class families are feeling the pinch. During the fall of 2008, a glut of subprime home loans had brought the nation’s financial system to the point of collapse, and mortgage foreclosures hit levels not seen since the Great Depression. How the government should respond loomed large over the debates between the nominees, Barack Obama and John McCain. In the race for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, several candidates are zeroing in on a different problem in the housing market: Americans are having more and more trouble finding homes and apartments they can afford in the parts of the country where well-paid jobs are being created.

The squeeze on young renters in expensive cities, a key Democratic constituency, gives the subject added urgency in the primary campaign. It may also help explain why a half-dozen candidates—also including Pete Buttigieg and Kamala Harris—have all issued detailed plans on housing policy. Plans from Booker, Castro, and Harris, for example, would establish new federal tax credits for renters, similar to an existing law providing a mortgage-interest deduction for homeowners. Warren’s proposal includes more federal funding to build middle-income rental housing in some parts of the country. Klobuchar’s plan expands legal protections for renters of all incomes. Three issues have emerged as particular touch points in the candidates’ plans: promoting affordability for middle-income families, reducing barriers to new construction, and addressing the lingering effects of prior racial discrimination.

Still, the plans these candidates have proposed are more technocratic than sweeping. While a number of Democrats have proposed ambitious changes to the nation’s health-care and higher-education systems—under the bold slogans “Debt-free college” and Medicare for All—their discussion of housing has been much more modest. “The rent is too damn high” has yet to become the cornerstone of anyone’s presidential campaign.

Because local governments make the most immediate decisions about where new homes can be built—and because those decisions can be highly contentious—it’s been tempting for presidential candidates to think of housing purely as a local issue. Yet the federal government’s influence over the housing market extends far beyond the 4.6 million households who live in public housing or receive rent subsidies via the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Federal tax policy creates subsidies for homeownership that renters do not enjoy, most notably through the mortgage-interest deduction. Federal rules define the availability and cost of capital through which households can buy homes. More than two-thirds of mortgages are securitized—and implicitly subsidized—by government-sponsored entities (Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac) or public agencies (the Federal Housing Administration and Veterans Affairs). The overwhelming share of federal transportation dollars are spent on highways and roads, effectively subsidizing car-oriented, single-family suburbs over dense central cities. Federal housing policies directly or indirectly benefit most of the nation’s 76 million homeowners; the government has underwritten the construction of new single-family homes in the same communities that ban new apartments. Though the cumulative effect of these policies has shaped the American landscape over the past 70 years, they have seldom been debated during presidential campaigns.

In some ways, that’s surprising. Housing is as important a kitchen-table issue as health care and education. Housing expenses are the largest item in most households’ monthly budgets. Housing affordability—typically measured as the share of income spent on housing costs—has gotten worse for middle-class families over the past two decades. Home equity is the largest financial asset for middle-income families. Low-income families have long faced the twin problems of housing affordability and instability, but these problems are increasingly threatening the middle class. When the unemployment rate spikes, voters blame the president. When Americans fear losing their health insurance, they flip partisan control of Congress. Yet when rising housing costs squeeze families’ budgets, few voters expect Washington to intervene in their local housing markets.

Yet that may change. Booker, Castro, Klobuchar, and Warren propose a combination of financial carrots and sticks that the federal government could use to induce local governments to reform their zoning. Indeed, a larger federal role in reducing local barriers to development appears to be one area with potential for bipartisan cooperation: President Donald Trump recently created a task force to address this issue.

For the past eight years, housing production has lagged behind demand. Urban economists have long documented how zoning and other land-use regulations adopted by local governments are impeding the ability to build new housing, particularly apartments, which provide most rental housing. While well-designed land-use regulations can limit potential harms—for instance, by ensuring that homes are not built in environmentally vulnerable locations—overly strict zoning creates a barrier to building affordable, high-quality housing in metro areas where economic opportunity abounds. Over the past year, the YIMBY movement has persuaded a number of governments to reduce regulatory barriers at the city or state level. If Booker, Castro, Klobuchar, and Warren—or Trump—can successfully throw financial and legal weight behind their proposals, the federal government would be staking out important territory in a policy area it previously has not claimed.

In the past, federal policy instead had the effect of widening inequality and entrenching discrimination. Yet the question of how to atone for the sin of redlining—the federal government’s history of systematically denying mortgages to black applicants and black neighborhoods—is having a breakout moment in the Democratic-primary campaign. Cory Booker prefaces his housing proposals with his parents’ struggle against housing discrimination, segueing into a plan for the federal government to combat exclusionary zoning by local governments. He has also embraced “baby bonds” as a means to close the racial wealth gap. At the She the People forum earlier this year, Warren devoted a substantial portion of her talk to explaining how a long history of racially discriminatory practices has contributed to persistent racial wealth gaps. To combat this, her plan includes down-payment assistance for first-time home buyers in segregated or formerly redlined neighborhoods. Kamala Harris similarly proposes homeownership subsidies for people living in historically redlined communities. Pete Buttigieg’s housing plan is one component of his larger Douglass Plan, aimed at reducing black-white disparities across a number of measures. Castro and Klobuchar both call for more rigorous enforcement of federal fair-housing laws.

Most proposals advanced by Democratic candidates do not fit neatly along the traditional ideological spectrum from “laissez-faire” to “activist government.” Some of Warren’s proposals could be described as classic Democratic tax-and-spend policy making—she would use proceeds from raising the estate tax to increase funding for the Department of Housing and Urban Development substantially. Yet Warren’s plan to address “state and local land-use rules that needlessly drive up housing costs” is decidedly pro-competition—in keeping with her stated philosophy of making markets work better through stronger rules. Booker, Castro, and Klobuchar likewise balance more government spending with calls to reduce anticompetitive regulations. Only two candidates, Harris and Buttigieg, call for more demand-side subsidies without addressing supply constraints.

One idea notable for its absence among the candidates’ plans is the furthest-left option: an expansion of traditional public housing. Sanders, as a self-identified socialist, would seem the most likely to call for building more public housing, as some left-leaning think tanks have suggested. So far he has leaned toward fairly modest housing interventions, emphasizing local government tools such as community land trusts and inclusionary zoning.

While housing policies that help Americans live in healthy communities can literally transform people’s lives, a slogan like “The rent is too damn high” doesn’t resonate as strongly with middle-class voters in the Rust Belt as it does in New York or San Francisco. The Department of Housing and Urban Development now administers an alphabet soup of complicated programs that many middle-class Americans don’t perceive as relevant to their own families.

The United States needs an affirmative vision of a 21st-century housing policy. Since the 1950s, Washington has followed an implicit strategy of encouraging homeownership in low-density, car-centric suburbs. Today we need a new strategy that embraces the country’s assets and challenges: a more diverse population, stubborn regional economic disparities, and the ever more tangible impacts of climate change.

Although national conversations about housing policy are rare, the success of the plans now being circulated will depend on the same concerns voiced in countless local community meetings across the country. Even as some Democratic candidates take tentative steps toward joining Team YIMBY, the party hasn’t explicitly resolved the conflicting claims that shape the housing policy: Do all Americans, regardless of income, have the right to live in safe, healthy housing? Do long-term homeowners have the right to block changes to their neighborhoods? When these rights clash with each other—as they inevitably will—how do we balance them? The answers are a matter of basic values that reverberate not just in individual neighborhoods and cities, but all around the country.