Excluded: How Snob Zoning, Nimbyism, and Class Bias Build the Walls We Don’t See, by Richard D. Kahlenberg (PublicAffairs, 352 pp., $30)

Richard Kahlenberg is a liberal idealist with a vision. The vision is woolly and not entirely consistent from page to page in his new book, Excluded. At its most liberal and idealistic, however, Kahlenberg’s vision ends America’s political polarization, uniting lower-income whites with lower-income nonwhites in a crusade to re-engineer the socioeconomic and demographic makeup of America’s affluent suburbs. The goal is to achieve an income mix, such that these communities remain affluent enough to maintain well-funded and high-quality schools but also just the right share of poorer households that can enjoy the benefits of these better schools and nicer neighborhoods without importing the pathologies of the deteriorating inner cities where they are now largely forced to live.

The vehicle for this suburban re-engineering would be a new federal law, the Economic Fair Housing Act (EFHA), which would supplement the 1968 Fair Housing Act, passed in the wake of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. The 1968 law prohibited housing discrimination based on race, religion, national origin, and sex and has since been amended to include disability and family status. Kahlenberg’s EFHA would prohibit local governments from discriminating based on income. As he writes, “the Economic Fair Housing Act would seek to ‘prohibit exclusionary housing practices comprehensively throughout the United States’ by giving harmed individuals and Department of Justice officials the right to sue municipalities and homeowners’ associations in federal court for engaging in exclusionary practices.” The exclusionary practice he particularly has in mind is “snob zoning”—that is, restricting the use of land in a community to single-family homes.

The EFHA is not going to happen, for a great many reasons. Most importantly, the Senate is structured to quash radical redistributionist political change; small-population states that do not have large cities are overrepresented. But even in the House, any potential Democratic majority would depend on large numbers of representatives from the very suburbs Kahlenberg seeks to re-engineer, and they will not go along with his plan.

So we can think of Kahlenberg’s book not as a practical political agenda, even for liberal Democrats, but as a thought exercise. What would be required to re-engineer the population makeup of the suburbs? His answer, which focuses on overturning single-family zoning through the threat of litigation, is naïve; I could say “disingenuous,” but Kahlenberg may not fully appreciate the dimensions of the changes his proposals would require.

Americans who follow politics closely may remember that in the 2020 presidential campaign Donald Trump accused Joe Biden of seeking to “destroy” the suburbs, a tale Kahlenberg recounts. Trump did not get much traction from this, likely because suburban voters didn’t feel their communities were threatened, and many disliked Trump as a candidate for other reasons.

However, Trump did cite specific Biden positions in making his accusation. One was his endorsement of the Obama administration’s Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing (AFFH) regulation, which the Trump administration withdrew and Biden, as president, has reinstated in a revised form. The AFFH rule relates both to the Fair Housing Act and to another federal law, Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination based on race, color, or national origin in the administration of federal programs. With respect to housing programs, the laws are viewed as requiring recipients of federal funding to locate assisted housing outside of areas where low-income, nonwhite households are concentrated. After a brief flurry of controversial efforts in the early 1970s, local governments have honored that requirement more in the breach than in the observance. The new Biden rule requires funding recipients to prepare five-year Equity Plans and annual progress evaluations. The hope is that this will encourage decisions more in keeping with fair-housing goals. One might criticize the revised rule as a costly unfunded mandate, but it has little effect in affluent suburbs, which are not large recipients of federal housing funds.

The other Biden-endorsed proposal that Trump cited was the Housing, Opportunity, Mobility, and Equity (HOME) Act, co-sponsored by New Jersey senator Cory Booker and South Carolina representative James Clyburn. The HOME Act provides a tax credit for rent-burdened individuals and conditions two federal grant programs —Surface Transportation Block Grants and Community Development Block Grants—on recipients’ taking steps to alleviate exclusionary zoning practices. Suburban communities use more federal transportation funds than housing funds, but they could still avoid the effects of the act by forgoing aid.

Congress has not passed the HOME Act, which can probably be explained by the aforementioned American political realities. Nonetheless, some states and municipalities have been taking steps to reform local single-family zoning practices in the hope that such changes would lower rents and boost housing opportunities in communities with strong job growth. Kahlenberg cites measures in California and Oregon, as well as the city of Minneapolis. More recently, legislation has passed in the states of Washington, Montana, and Vermont, and, across the border, in Toronto.

These reforms focus on “missing middle” housing types, described on one advocacy website as “a range of house-scale buildings with multiple units—compatible in scale and form with detached single-family homes—located in a walkable neighborhood.” The argument, which Kahlenberg notes, is that allowing such housing types can help alleviate regional shortages without fundamentally altering the scale and character of suburban neighborhoods.  

“Missing middle” zoning reforms do not aim to alter significantly the income mix of suburban communities. Most homeowners like their current living configuration and are not likely in the short run to add an accessory dwelling unit or tear down their house and build a triplex. Because physical change is limited and slow, the structure of rents and sales prices will not change dramatically. Absent public subsidies, the people moving into “missing middle” housing are likely to be middle class and not all that different demographically from existing homeowners.

Kahlenberg’s vision seeks an end to segregation by income; thus, the EFHA. This goes way beyond the Biden AFFH rule, the HOME Act, and “missing middle” reforms and would, at a minimum, significantly change the suburbs. But economic “rights,” which he wishes to institute, are very different from civil rights, such as the protections against discrimination in the 1968 Fair Housing Act.

Civil rights are intangible goods. The government didn’t need to provide financial assistance to extend them to new beneficiaries—such as Cory Booker’s parents, who, Kahlenberg mentions, were able to buy a house in a nice suburban neighborhood with the help of the 1968 law. Booker’s parents had the money; the problem was that no broker in their selected new community would show them houses for sale.

In contrast, housing is a tangible good. If the virtuous, working-poor, single-parent families Kahlenberg writes about are to move to affluent suburbs, they need a government agency to fund the gap between the rent they can pay and the rent that’s charged, even if “snob zoning” is overturned and new “missing middle” housing is built.

The question of funding raises the issue of who gets more than they put into government coffers, and who gets less. Kahlenberg would likely support appropriating the necessary resources and raising taxes to do so. But he neither offers a cost estimate nor provides a theory about how a robust and generous expanded welfare state will materialize under the present American political tradition and constitutional structure.

Not discussing the cost is the biggest flaw in Kahlenberg’s argument, but it is not the only one. He imagines federal judges as land-use-planning Solons; they might not turn out to be so wise. Moreover, litigation is expensive, time-consuming, and a bad way to make policy. If Congress sympathized with his goals, it would be far more effective to work through the tax code or laws regulating the banking and mortgage industries. For example, federal tax law allocates Low Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC) authority, which generates capital subsidies for low-income housing, by state. Congress could mandate that, to get LIHTC authority, states must commit to spending a specified share in high-income communities.

It’s more likely that change will come incrementally, as states experiment with minimum-zoning standards and local governments grapple with the problem of housing the workers they need to do essential jobs, as well as their families. Positive news is abundant on the zoning-reform front, but Kahlenberg’s EFHA does not point us in a direction that we should want to go.

Photo: Francesco Scatena/iStock


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