The Corner

Politics & Policy

No, Trump Has Not Ended Obama’s War on the Suburbs

Houses in a suburb of Denver, Colo. (Rick Wilking/Reuters)

The Obama administration’s Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing (AFFH) rule was arguably its most radical attempt to “fundamentally transform” the United States. As I wrote at the time, Obama’s AFFH gives the federal government “a lever to re-engineer nearly every American neighborhood — imposing a preferred racial and ethnic composition, densifying housing, transportation, and business development in suburb and city alike, and weakening or casting aside the authority of local governments over core responsibilities, from zoning to transportation to education.” Another way of looking at Obama’s AFFH is to see it as a way of allowing big cities to effectively annex their surrounding suburbs — siphoning off suburban tax revenue and controlling suburban planning as well.

While Ben Carson’s HUD is now proposing a revision of Obama’s AFFH that peels back some of the rule’s most egregious overreach, the core of Obama’s AFFH remains intact. Although it is disguised by vague bureaucratic language, Carson’s version of AFFH still gives the feds the power to control local zoning decisions.

As policy, this is folly. As politics, it is flat-out malpractice. Carson’s version of AFFH will alienate the suburbs, now the crucial swing vote in federal elections. If a Republican administration entrenches “AFFH lite”, it will only legitimate the next Democratic administration’s attempts to restore an Obama-style AFFH. Once Republicans accept the principle that it is the business of the feds to tell local governments how to zone and plan, the next Democratic president will push federal control to the max. With Carson’s AFFH lite, Republicans will have abandoned not only the principle of local control and the correct interpretation of the original Fair Housing Act, they will have lost a political issue that could turn suburban swing voters their way.

Obama’s AFFH wildly overreads the Fair Housing Act so as to license federal control of local government. Secretary Carson’s HUD has no business validating that misreading of the law. Obama’s AFFH should be eliminated entirely, and the federal government should return to a reading of the phrase “affirmatively furthering fair housing” consistent with the original meaning of the Fair Housing Act.

Why has Carson’s HUD decided to propose an “AFFH lite” rather than to pull back the rule completely? Although the conservative base abhors AFFH, developer interests exercise significant sway over HUD. If HUD breaks the ability of local governments to control their own housing and planning decisions, developers will get busy urbanizing the suburbs. Something tells me America’s suburbanites will be less than pleased by that.

There are clashing conservative principles at stake in the battle over AFFH. On the one hand, free-market conservatives want to limit regulation — zoning included — to the greatest extent possible. On the other hand, regulation and planning decisions belong at the local level, not with the feds. When it comes to local zoning, the second principle has always taken priority over the first. That is how it should stay. Carson’s HUD may think it can tweak Obama’s AFFH to avoid the worst abuses, while still pleasing developers. In short order, however, AFFH lite will alienate the suburbs politically. And by preserving the core idea of Obama’s AFFH — federal control of local zoning and planning — Carson’s HUD will have effectively legitimated the vastly more radical program of the next Democratic president.

Socialists love telling people where to live. Nothing could be further from the American way, but that’s where the Dems are headed. Carson’s AFFH lite is an open invitation to future mischief by Democrats itching to bring back Obama’s most radical initiative. Trim back AFFH just a bit, and it will grow far stronger than before. This rule needs to be rooted out entirely.

Obama cleverly waited till his administration had nearly ended to promulgate his radical rule. But Obama’s HUD executed a test-run of their new AFFH policy on Westchester County, N.Y. This flipped Westchester’s government from Democrat to Republican, as County Executive Rob Astorino courageously fought back against Obama administration overreach. While Astorino can rightly be praised for his stand against Obama’s AFFH, I’m afraid he is mistaken to claim now that “Team Trump just called a halt to the Obama-era war on American suburbs.” You can find a more accurate account of Carson’s misguided “AFFH lite” rule here.

I write as a supporter of the Trump administration who very much wants to see the president reelected. Carson’s AFFH lite may squeak by before the suburbs get wind of what it will actually do. But there’s a serious risk that suburbanites will discover HUD’s roundabout but very real attack on their zoning and planning powers in time for the presidential election. If they do, they won’t like it. And once HUD begins to actually hold back its Community Development Block Grants from suburbs that refuse to drop their zoning for single-family housing, massive political blowback could very easily endanger congressional Republicans in 2022.

AFFH is a political nuclear bomb waiting to go off. The public doesn’t get it yet because Obama didn’t promulgate the rule until his administration was just about over. This profoundly radical rule is on the books, but it’s never been enforced. Carson suspended enforcement, and now he’s putting forward a weakened — but still quite radical — version of the rule. Just wait until Carson’s AFFH is actually put into effect. Once that happens, Americans will wake up and rebel. Once the feds start using HUD grant money as a lever to kill suburban zoning rules — and make no mistake, that is what Carson’s version of AFFH will do — America’s suburbanites will wake up and there will be political hell to pay.

Carson’s AFFH lite is a mistake. Obama’s radical AFFH rule needs to be entirely repealed.

Stanley Kurtz is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

Most Popular

Media

The Unrelenting Assault on President Trump

There has never been a presidential campaign in the United States where the administration was so massively opposed by the principal media outlets as in this election. Nor, in at least a century, have the national political media so widely and thoroughly discarded the traditional criterion for journalistic ... Read More
Media

The Unrelenting Assault on President Trump

There has never been a presidential campaign in the United States where the administration was so massively opposed by the principal media outlets as in this election. Nor, in at least a century, have the national political media so widely and thoroughly discarded the traditional criterion for journalistic ... Read More
Education

Destroy the ‘Public’ Education System

‘Public” schools have been a catastrophe for the United States. This certainly isn’t an original assertion, but as we watch thousands of authoritarian brats tearing down the legacies of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, it’s more apparent than ever. State-run schools have undercut two fundamental ... Read More
Education

Destroy the ‘Public’ Education System

‘Public” schools have been a catastrophe for the United States. This certainly isn’t an original assertion, but as we watch thousands of authoritarian brats tearing down the legacies of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, it’s more apparent than ever. State-run schools have undercut two fundamental ... Read More
Culture

Two NFL Apologies

So Drew Brees defended the American flag and all it stands for, said he didn’t agree with kneeling for the national anthem and correctly described this gesture of open disrespect as disrespect. "Is everything right with our country right now?" said the Saints' future Hall of Famer. "No, it is not. We still have ... Read More
Culture

Two NFL Apologies

So Drew Brees defended the American flag and all it stands for, said he didn’t agree with kneeling for the national anthem and correctly described this gesture of open disrespect as disrespect. "Is everything right with our country right now?" said the Saints' future Hall of Famer. "No, it is not. We still have ... Read More
Politics & Policy

Chesterton’s Cops

Conservatives are big on “Chesterton’s fence.” That’s G. K. Chesterton’s principle that you cannot reform what you do not understand, that you should not for the sake of convenience knock down a fence until you understand why it was put up in the first place. When encountering a fence in his way, ... Read More
Politics & Policy

Chesterton’s Cops

Conservatives are big on “Chesterton’s fence.” That’s G. K. Chesterton’s principle that you cannot reform what you do not understand, that you should not for the sake of convenience knock down a fence until you understand why it was put up in the first place. When encountering a fence in his way, ... Read More
Culture

Why Progressives Wage War on History

Princeton University’s decision to remove the name “Woodrow Wilson” from its School of Public and International Affairs is a big win for progressive activists, and the implications will extend far beyond the campus. It hardly surprises me, in today’s polarizing environment, that my alma mater caved to ... Read More
Culture

Why Progressives Wage War on History

Princeton University’s decision to remove the name “Woodrow Wilson” from its School of Public and International Affairs is a big win for progressive activists, and the implications will extend far beyond the campus. It hardly surprises me, in today’s polarizing environment, that my alma mater caved to ... Read More
Regulatory Policy

Going Medieval

Writing in Bloomberg, Noah Smith gives more than a nod to Peter Turchin’s theory of elite overproduction (or, as Smith neatly relabels the phenomenon, “elite over-competition”) as a cause of the current wave of turmoil in the West, something with which I would agree but, I think, more emphatically. Quite ... Read More
Regulatory Policy

Going Medieval

Writing in Bloomberg, Noah Smith gives more than a nod to Peter Turchin’s theory of elite overproduction (or, as Smith neatly relabels the phenomenon, “elite over-competition”) as a cause of the current wave of turmoil in the West, something with which I would agree but, I think, more emphatically. Quite ... Read More

Canceled, &c.

There was a headline last week: “Boeing Communications Chief Resigns Over Decades-Old Article on Women in Combat.” Find the story here. It explains that “Niel Golightly abruptly resigned on Thursday, following an employee’s complaint over an article the former U.S. military pilot wrote 33 years ago ... Read More

Canceled, &c.

There was a headline last week: “Boeing Communications Chief Resigns Over Decades-Old Article on Women in Combat.” Find the story here. It explains that “Niel Golightly abruptly resigned on Thursday, following an employee’s complaint over an article the former U.S. military pilot wrote 33 years ago ... Read More
U.S.

Bad News about the Virus

On the menu today: an important update about indications that the coronavirus is now more contagious than it used to be, with far-reaching ramifications for how we fight this pandemic; a point on the recent complaints about the Paycheck Protection Program; and a new book for everyone closely following the debate ... Read More
U.S.

Bad News about the Virus

On the menu today: an important update about indications that the coronavirus is now more contagious than it used to be, with far-reaching ramifications for how we fight this pandemic; a point on the recent complaints about the Paycheck Protection Program; and a new book for everyone closely following the debate ... Read More