As a political scientist who has studied local land-use regulations, I’m surprised to see a national political campaign in 2020 place such an emphasis on the issue—which hasn’t figured much in presidential races in half a century. The Trump campaign isn’t wrong to think that white suburban voters—the obvious target of the McCloskeys’ speech—would oppose apartment construction in their neighborhoods. In a nationally representative survey of metropolitan areas that I conducted last year, a substantial majority of homeowners revealed a strong preference for single-family development and opposition to apartments. They also overwhelmingly agreed that residents of a community should get a vote on what is built there…
And yet the history of exclusionary zoning reveals that it has long been a bipartisan activity. Obama’s Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule was the first major action taken by any presidential administration to enforce the 1968 Fair Housing Act, which despite its lofty promises has not resulted in an integrated America. During the 1976 presidential campaign, Jimmy Carter assured voters that he was not “going to use the federal government’s authority deliberately to circumvent the natural inclination of people to live in ethnically homogenous neighborhoods.”
My survey data revealed no significant difference between white Republican and white Democratic homeowners in their opposition to high-density housing. I also found overwhelming agreement that apartment complexes would increase crime rates, decrease school quality, lower property values, and degrade the desirability of a neighborhood…
What this means is that Trump’s approach could conceivably appeal to white suburbanites more broadly, not just Republicans. And yet the evidence suggests that this is unlikely. Most white Democrats support the development of affordable and subsidized housing in the abstract and will feel comfortable rejecting Trump’s similarly abstract opposition to it. Where white Democrats oppose such development is when it arrives in their own backyards. But they do not need Trump to block it.
The Americans suburbs are based around single-family homes, exclusion, and local control (in addition to other factors). Opposition to apartments can be about both changes in aesthetics and character of a suburb and the kinds of people who are assumed to live in apartments.
But, as is hinted above, the real battleground over apartments and affordable housing and residential segregation really is about the local level. Federal or state guidelines could require certain things for municipalities. This is the first line of defense for those opposed to housing or any other development they do not desire. And these are abstract levels of government until local development pressure starts up. Even if such regulations passed, where exactly apartments might be located, in what scale and with what design, and how local residents and officials respond is the real pressure point.
If I am interpreting the last paragraph cited above correctly, white suburbanites in general will mobilize to oppose local development they do not want. This can have multiple effects: (1) it stops apartments and affordable housing from being built; (2) it can push such development into communities that are less able to mobilize or where there is already cheaper housing; and (3) it can create long-standing tensions between community members and prospective residents. In the long run, it means that some of the same patterns that suburbanites might criticize in big cities – uneven development, residential segregation – are replicated in suburbs.