As the presidential campaign starts to heat up, President Trump has launched a new line of attack on Joe Biden: If the Democrat wins, he has warned, he will “destroy the beautiful suburbs” and shatter “your American Dream.”
Biden plans to bring back “the Obama-Biden dystopian vision of building low-income housing units next to your suburban house,” Trump and Housing Secretary Ben Carson wrote in an op-ed published in Monday’s Wall Street Journal, titled “We’ll protect America’s suburbs.”
More than a few suburbanites are probably wondering: What on earth is he talking about?
Along with trying to appeal to a key slice of the electorate that he’s currently losing, Trump has a specific policy in mind, one rooted in the debate about housing, zoning, and local control that for decades has played out in places such as the suburbs of Greater Boston.
It centers on an Obama-era add-on to the 1968 Fair Housing Act, which bars discrimination in housing. Called Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing, the new rule, created in 2015, required cities, towns, and public housing authorities that receive federal funding to not only avoid overt discrimination but also to devise plans to lower racial barriers to housing — anything from helping lower-income people move closer to jobs to building more affordable housing.
A year after Trump took office, however, the Department of Housing and Urban Development stopped requiring those plans, and last month it ended the program entirely. Carson called the rule “unworkable and ultimately a waste of time.”
“Washington has no business dictating what is best to meet your local community’s unique needs,” Carson said.
People who have kept tabs on AFFH — as the rule is known — say the issue is far more nuanced than Trump makes it out to be. For one thing, while plans had to be approved by HUD, they were written by local governments, said Justin Steil, a law professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology who tracked AFFH.
“They make it seem like this top-down requirement from Washington,” he said. “The whole point is that each locality has its own needs, and it makes sense for each locality to make its own goals and plans.”
It was also a slow-going process. From 2015, when the rule took effect, through early 2018, when Trump suspended it, only 49 plans nationwide were submitted to HUD. Just one came from Massachusetts: the City of Somerville. That’s partly because of months of community meetings that typically were needed to shape the plans but also because communities that received no federal housing funds were exempt.
Overall, said Marc Draisen, executive director of the Metropolitan Area Planning Council, AFFH is less intrusive than some existing housing regulations in Massachusetts law, particularly Chapter 40B, which allows developers to bypass most local zoning rules in cities and towns that don’t meet state affordable housing targets.
“It was very mild. It involved very few sanctions,” said Draisen, whose group helps cities and towns around Greater Boston draft housing plans. “I don’t think there was anything at all to be afraid of.”
Mostly, said Rachel Heller, CEO of the Citizens Housing and Planning Association, AFFH was a tool to spark conversations “about why a community is the way it is.” The fact that Trump sees an opportunity to use it to his political advantage, she said, speaks to how deeply housing issues are rooted in the psyche of many suburbanites.
“The fact he’s been able to boil this down like that is what amazes me,” she said. “I never would have thought the AFFH is something the president would be tweeting about.”
Notably, said Katherine Levine Einstein, a Boston University professor who studies land use politics, Trump is not even talking about Biden proposals that would likely do far more to integrate suburbia than AFFH ever could.
Biden’s housing plan, for instance, would dramatically expand the Section 8 voucher program, which helps many lower-income Americans rent apartments. And it would tie not just housing funding but federal transportation funding as well to more inclusive zoning plans. In many suburbs, Einstein noted, those transportation dollars matter a lot more than relatively modest federal housing money.
“Take someplace like Weston,” she said. “Do they really care if they lose their HUD funding? But they do care about transportation funding.”
Still, she said, at least in places like the traditionally liberal suburbs around Boston, the mere fact that Trump is against programs like AFFH may inspire some people to support it.
Einstein is conducting a survey on how Trump’s rhetoric influences the way suburbanites think about zoning. If it raises awareness of how that zoning perpetuates segregation, she said, it could lead people to vote differently on local housing issues, especially amid growing support for movements such as Black Lives Matter.
“The way Trump has politicized zoning may have a really important effect on public opinion,” she said. “People are starting to ask, ‘If I endorse only single-family housing, is that racially biased?‘”
And despite the end of AFFH — at least under Trump — some communities are pushing forward with their plans.
The City of Boston has been working on a fair-housing plan for three years, said Kathy Brown, coordinator of the Boston Tenant Coalition. It’s held a series of neighborhood meetings and is studying data on race and housing. It’s on track to wrap up both this fall.
Arlington, too, is working on a plan that borrows heavily from AFFH guidelines, said planning director Jennifer Raitt. It hopes to be finished by early 2021 and use the plan to spark conversation about the ways longstanding policies subtly contribute to ongoing housing segregation.
“It’s about uncovering these issues so they can be shown to people,” Raitt said. “We can discuss them, and understand them and, ideally, act.”
It is in affluent and largely white suburbs such as Arlington where AFFH could have had the biggest impact, Steil said. Not by forcing the construction of large-scale affordable housing, as Trump suggests would happen, but by prompting people to examine their own communities and to reconcile what they see with their politics.
“Massachusetts is a poster child for why this rule is important,” he said. “We have these wealthy suburban communities where people have a Black Lives Matter sign in the front yard, but they oppose affordable housing in their neighborhood. This rule is trying to spark conversations about that, in a more rigorous way.”