The most obvious new element of the president’s regionalist policy initiative is the July 19 publication of a Department of Housing and Urban Development regulation broadening the obligation of recipients of federal aid to “affirmatively further fair housing.” The apparent purpose of this rule change is to force suburban neighborhoods with no record of housing discrimination to build more public housing targeted to ethnic and racial minorities. Several administration critics noticed the change and challenged it, while the mainstream press has simply declined to cover the story.
Yet even critics have missed the real thrust of HUD’s revolutionary rule change. That’s understandable, since the Obama administration is at pains to downplay the regionalist philosophy behind its new directive. The truth is, HUD’s new rule is about a great deal more than forcing racial and ethnic diversity on the suburbs. (Regionalism, by the way, is actually highly controversial among minority groups. There are many ways in which both middle-class minorities in suburbs, and less well-off minorities in cities, can be hurt by regionalist policies–another reason those plans are seldom discussed.)
The new HUD rule is really about changing the way Americans live. It is part of a broader suite of initiatives designed to block suburban development, press Americans into hyper-dense cities, and force us out of our cars. Government-mandated ethnic and racial diversification plays a role in this scheme, yet the broader goal is forced “economic integration.” The ultimate vision is to make all neighborhoods more or less alike, turning traditional cities into ultra-dense Manhattans, while making suburbs look more like cities do now. In this centrally-planned utopia, steadily increasing numbers will live cheek-by-jowl in “stack and pack” high-rises close to public transportation, while automobiles fall into relative disuse. To understand how HUD’s new rule will help enact this vision, we need to turn to a less-well-known example of the Obama administration’s regionalist interventionism…
The Plan Bay Area precedent makes it clear that HUD will use data on access to housing, jobs, and transportation to press densification on both urban and suburban jurisdictions. With the new HUD rule in place, municipalities will be under heavy pressure to allow multifamily developments in areas previously zoned for single-family housing. The new counting scheme, which measures access to housing, jobs, and transportation, will simultaneously create pressures to push businesses into the newly densified areas, and to locate those centers near transportation hubs. In effect, HUD’s new rule gives the federal government a tool to press ultra-dense Plan Bay Area-style “priority development areas” on regions across the country.
Housing discrimination is a real issue as is the lack of affordable housing. Leaving it to “the market” to sort this all out isn’t really working.
Also, there is some hyperbole going on here. See similar claims from conservatives about the US joining with the United Nations to push urban density. Pushing denser suburbs does not necessarily mean that all suburbs are going to be Manhattan. In fact, Manhattan is very unusual even among American cities for its density. Interestingly, the thriving cities of today are Sunbelt cities like Houston that tend to be less dense than traditional big cities in the Northeast or Midwest. Kurtz seems to be defending unmitigated sprawl, the idea that suburbs should have as little density as they like. This tends to be linked to greater local control as well as wealth – it is more expensive to have big lots/pieces of land. Additionally, less dense sprawl is viewed as the opposite of city life with its forced interactions with people different than you, less space, dirtiness, and urban problems (this perspective tends to ignores the benefits of urban life).
There are problems with unmitigated sprawl, even if people with means may desire it. Like any kind of development, there are tradeoffs involved. It is can be costly environmentally, tied to issues of land use and water runoff, among others. It leads to more driving which can be viewed as the ultimate expression of American independence but which also involves longer commutes, less walking, more traffic, and the expensive actions of owning and operating a car. It can be related to weaker communities and social relationships – see the discussion about sprawl in Bowling Alone. Its infrastructure is costly as roads, electric lines, gas lines, and local services are more spread out. Additionally, the fate of suburbs are linked to cities – the two areas are not independent (though they may appear to be so, say, when comparing Detroit with some of its wealthier suburbs) and problems in one area affect the other.
Having denser suburbs does not mean the American suburban way of life will disappear. It may mean smaller lots and less driving plus more mixed uses and new people in the suburbs but this does not necessarily equal Manhattan.