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.

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