Can proposed legislation on housing prompt a public discussion?

A new bill proposed in the Senate by Elizabeth Warren attempts to address housing issues:

It aims to lower the cost of developing housing so landlords don’t have to make rents so high, coming at the issue from two different angles. From one end, it tries to increase the supply of affordable housing by pouring billions of federal dollars into programs that subsidize developments in rural, low-income, and middle-income communities.

From the other end, the bill attempts to strip away the zoning laws that made developing housing so expensive in the first place. Many of these zoning laws limit low-income residents from moving to wealthier neighborhoods. In Tegeler’s opinion, the laws are one of the main drivers of housing unaffordability. Those laws typically exist at a local level, so in order to target them, Warren’s bill creates a competitive block grant program. The grant money could be spent flexibly—on schools or parks, for example—and is intended to appeal to suburban communities with stricter zoning laws.  Those communities can only access grants if they reexamine and redress their land restrictions.

The bill also focuses on the ways housing inequality falls along racial lines. Notably, it assists populations that federal housing policy has historically failed: formerly segregated African American populations and families whose housing wealth was destroyed in the financial crisis. Under the bill, black families long denied mortgages by the federal government qualify for down payment assistance, helping many in formerly segregated communities to become first-time home buyers. The bill also invests two billion dollars to support borrowers still recovering from the financial crisis with negative equity on their mortgages.

The bill also restructures the Community Reinvestment Act (CRA), a 1977 law proposed to monitor banks with discriminatory loan policies against communities of color. Warren’s bill gives the CRA more enforcement mechanisms and expands its policing power to include credit unions and nonbank mortgage companies, which were not as ubiquitous when the bill was passed. Lastly, the bill strengthens anti-discrimination laws by expanding Fair Housing Act protections to include gender identity, sexual orientation, marital status, and source of income, attempting to limit housing segregation in the future.

It sounds like the bill tries to strike a balance between incentives for communities and developers and strengthening enforcement of guidelines against housing discrimination.

It will be interesting to see what tone the public debate takes, if it even reaches the level of public discussion. Housing issues are not on the national political radar screen. Historically, many Americans are reluctant to address housing concerns through the federal government. They would rather leave these matters to local governments, if government should address the matter at all. Support for public housing has always been limited.

Similarly, even stating an intention of trying to encourage certain suburban communities to open up their doors to different kinds of residents is a hard sell. Minorities and immigrants are indeed moving to suburbia but where they locate or can live is not necessarily even. (See this recent example from the Chicago suburbs of high black homeownership in certain communities.) A good number of suburbanites would attribute the residential segregation patterns to economic options and/or the ability of local communities to draw up guidelines of what kind of community they want to be (such as one without certain kinds of housing).

I would not expect such a bill to be an easy sell or even one that can garner much attention, even if it addresses issues that affect millions of Americans.

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