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.

Polarization: California housing bill does not make it out of committee

It is unclear how California intends to move forward in providing cheaper housing to residents after a YIMBY (“yes in my backyard”) housing bill did not make it out of committee earlier this week:

On Tuesday night, legislators killed SB 827, which would have allowed the construction of apartment buildings up to five stories tall near every high-frequency mass transit stop in the state.

SB 827 sparked a spirited debate about how the state should address its housing crisis. Its lead sponsor, State Senator Scott Wiener, argued that wresting zoning decisions away from local municipalities and forcing communities to build more densely near transit was the best way to both ease housing affordability in cities like San Francisco and help the state hit its ambitious environmental goals. Supporters of the bill—dubbed YIMBYs, for “Yes In My Backyard”—took on residents from wealthier, single-family home neighborhoods, who deployed the traditional NIMBY argument that the bill imperiled neighborhood character and would lead to traffic and parking woes.

The NIMBY side had some surprising allies, among them the Sierra Club and advocates for “Public Housing in My Backyard,” or PHIMBYs, who argued that the law would enrich developers and exacerbate gentrification in low-income minority neighborhoods…

Wiener also acknowledged how ambitious the bill was, and said he was “heartened by the conversation it has started.” Indeed, the bill was much-discussed nationwide. Vox’s Matthew Yglesias called SB 827 “one of the most important ideas in American politics today,” and the Boston Globe’s Dante Ramos said the bill could be “the biggest environmental boon, the best job creator, and the greatest strike against inequality that anyone’s proposed in the United States in decades.”

There are plenty of polarizing issues in America today but few would divide people so deeply than the issue of housing. There are several reasons for this:

  1. It is closely connected to race in the United States. While legally discriminating based on race or ethnicity in housing has been illegal for 50 years, residential segregation by race and ethnicity is alive and well.
  2. It is closely connected to social class in the United States. Those with resources do not want to live near those without resources. This can disrupt groups that commonly stick together, such as Democrats who might generally be more in favor of affordable housing but not necessarily when it means providing more housing in wealthier areas.
  3. Some of these polarizing issues are more abstract for many people but housing is an everyday issue that affects who you interact with, school districts, what kids see as normal, communities, parks, safety, and property values. Those who have choices about where they can move typically want those places to stay “nice.”

If California cannot figure this out at a state level, are there other states that can step up and provide affordable housing?

(Of course, the state level may not be the best level at which to address this. However, if it is left to municipalities, the wealthier ones will simply opt out and leave the issue for other communities to address.)

The influential 1965 Immigration Act

The current position of the United States regarding immigrants was heavily influenced by the 1965 Immigration Act:

A new Pew Research Center report finds that the 1965 Immigration Act was largely responsible for bringing 59 million immigrants into the American population between then and 2015. These new arrivals, their kids, and their grandkids make up over half of the total U.S. population growth during this period. Looking ahead to 2065, immigrants that came to America as a result of this law, plus their families, will account for almost 90 percent of the nation’s population increase from now to then…

The Immigration Act of 1924 clamped down on immigration from Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and Western and Southern Europe. Here’s Stephen Klineberg, a sociologist at Rice University, commenting on the explicit racism of the policy, via NPR:

“It declared that Northern Europeans are a superior subspecies of the white race. The Nordics were superior to the Alpines, who in turn were superior to the Mediterraneans, and all of them were superior to the Jews and the Asians.”

The 1965 law re-wrote that policy, and since then America’s white population share has declined from 84 percent at the time to 62 percent in 2015. Meanwhile, the Hispanic population share grew from 4 to 18 percent, and Asians rose from less than 1 percent to 6 percent (below, left). If President Johnson hadn’t signed the 1965 law, America would be 75 percent white today…

Quite a long-lasting impact for a piece of legislation that still doesn’t seem to get much attention today. And, as the article notes, it may not have been easy to know the impact of the Act at the time even as its effect from the vantage point of today looks significant. If supporters or opponents of immigration want to support or change policy, this is a place to start (though there have been changes made since then).

Also noted: much of the population increase in the United States in recent decades is due to immigration. Otherwise, the fate of the country looks more like many other industrialized nations with low birth rates and an aging population.

From a sociology class project to the Illinois House floor

Many teachers and professors hope that what is taught and discussed in the classroom will influence the world outside the classroom. Here is one example of a proposed Illinois bill that was inspired by a sociology class project:

House Bill 180 was introduced by state Rep. Kay Hatcher, R-Yorkville. Currently, those engaging in disorderly conduct must stay 200 feet from a funeral for at least 30 minutes or risk being charged with a misdemeanor.

The legislation would increase the distance to 1,000 feet and the time to one hour. Those restrictions would put Illinois in line with most other Midwestern states, Hatcher said.

The legislation was inspired by a bill-writing project in a Northern Illinois University sociology class. One of the students was angered by some of the groups that had been protesting at the funerals of soldiers and other high-profile people.

At the end of the class, one of the students, Gayle Deja-Schultz of Sugar Grove, contacted Hatcher about sponsoring the bill.

“I believe everybody has a right to mourn in peace,” Deja-Schultz told the committee.

I could see using this project idea of writing a bill in the future. And then I could present this news story as inspirational evidence for what could happen.