The 2016 election exposed, among other things, the gradual extinction of the urban Republican, who, like the Southern Democrat, has virtually vanished from the political scene. While Donald Trump swept rural areas, he struggled in suburbs and failed to find traction in cities. Less than a quarter of America’s 100 largest cities are currently run by Republicans.
This is a big problem for the GOP. It’s also a problem for urban residents. After all, political competition is good for cities. Partisan competition brings in fresh ideas and better policymaking. Though New York is a Democrat-dominated city, Republican administrations played a critical role in its revitalization. Even for those skeptical of conservative policy solutions, it’s hard to deny that Chicago could use some fiscal prudence or that San Francisco badly needs some good-government street cleaning.
Take the issue of housing affordability. There’s growing agreement now that restrictive land-use regulations like zoning—which limit the size, use, and density of buildings and require costly public reviews—are a key factor in the housing-affordability crisis. The burgeoning YIMBY movement—Yes in My Backyard, an answer to the older Not in My Backyard (NIMBY) instinct—looks to make it easier to build more housing where it’s most needed. The movement has already racked up important victories, such as legalizing granny flats statewide in California and ending single-family zoning in Minneapolis.
Republicans have been mostly MIA on this issue—at least since the 1990s, when Jack Kemp tried to tackle “exclusionary zoning” (land-use regulations that drive up housing costs). The YIMBY movement is strongest in deep-blue enclaves where housing costs are high, and for this reason its leadership is overwhelmingly made up of progressives. With some rhetorical adjustment, though, the YIMBY message should appeal to Republicans who value open markets, economic opportunity, and property rights.
The core message of scaling back regulations that raise costs on consumers should sound familiar to market-friendly conservatives, and it overlaps with the Republican focus on opportunity. As the work of economists Peter Ganong and Daniel Shoag shows, tightening land-use restrictions in America’s most productive metro areas, by artificially raising housing costs, shuts many Americans out of chances for economic advancement, since they’re deterred from moving to jobs-rich cities and suburbs. This, in turn, exacerbates wage inequality.
Most people agree that some baseline regulation is needed in cities and towns to control nuisances and mediate industrial effects. But why should the government have the authority to tell homeowners that they can’t renovate their garages into granny flats, or tell small businessmen that they can’t convert their laundromats into apartment buildings? Progressive YIMBYs would approve of these projects and entrepreneurial urban Republicans should, too.
A small but growing number of Republicans have reached out to the YIMBY coalition. The results are promising, especially in San Diego, California’s second-largest city and one of the least affordable cities in the nation. In response, Republican mayor Kevin Faulconer has enthusiastically embraced the YIMBY cause, pursuing an ambitious effort to promote housing development. From streamlining permits to granting extra density so that housing can be made less expensive, Faulconer’s YIMBY push has earned him bipartisan accolades. In March, San Diego’s Democrat-dominated city council voted 8-1 to approve Faulconer’s proposal to eliminate minimum-parking requirements near transit, which can add considerably to housing-construction costs.
Faulconer stands alone among conservative YIMBYs at the local level, but Republicans in state government have many models to draw on. The GOP controls more state legislatures than ever before, and in many states where it holds a majority, it can preempt excessive local regulation—or pass pro-development legislation of its own. In Utah, lawmakers recently passed Senate Bill 34, a bill championed by Republican State Senator Jacob Anderegg designed to encourage more housing construction in the increasingly unaffordable Salt Lake City metro area. The bill combines carrots and sticks, rewarding municipalities that make room for needed housing and withdrawing coveted state highway dollars from those that don’t.
Even in blue states, though, Republican YIMBY energies are stirring. In California, key Republicans have signed on to SB 50, an ambitious bill that would allow more housing to be built near train stations and bus stops. In Massachusetts, the state’s popular Republican governor, Charlie Baker, is campaigning for legislation that would make it easier for towns to update out-of-date zoning regulations. In neighboring New Hampshire, Republican state representative Dave Testerman recently sponsored a bill to allow for the development of “tiny homes” in residentially zoned areas, partly in an effort to keep young families in the increasingly high-priced state.
The seeds of a Republican YIMBY movement may even be taking root at the federal level. Department of Housing and Urban Development secretary Ben Carson has hinted at YIMBY support, exploring how to make federal funding for cities conditional on lowering barriers to housing construction. Though the threat of losing HUD dollars may not be enough to spur widespread zoning reform, it’s a step in the right direction.
From a moderate Republican mayor in Southern California to a conservative Republican state senator in Utah, some in the GOP are taking up the YIMBY charge. It’s a start, suggesting that Republicans have at least begun to engage seriously on issues facing urban and suburban communities. These and similar efforts could end up building more than just houses—they might also lay the groundwork for an urban Republican resurgence.