Donald Trump is losing the suburbs, but he has a plan and wants “Suburban Housewives” to know it. The plan will be familiar to urbanists: stoking fears of single-family zoning reform and low-income housing and brazenly claiming opponents want to “abolish the suburbs.” Eerie isn’t it–am I reading a Seattle Times column?

Packaging sexism, classism, and screaming racist dogwhistles together is hardly a new formula for the president, but squarely targeting suburban voters with all the subtlety of an atomic bomb is novel.

Urbanists have long argued that widespread single-family zoning is a racist artifact that drives up housing costs and furthers segregation. Reform that zoning and it allow more affordable housing, more seniors to age in place, higher transit frequencies, and lower climate emissions. Much to our chagrin, suburban cities and neighborhoods continue to be overwhelmingly dominated by single-family zoning in the Seattle region and across much of the county. Still, that message is slowly making inroads.

In a tele-town hall earlier this month, Trump said that Democrats want to “eliminate single-family zoning, bringing who knows into your suburbs, so your communities will be unsafe and your housing values will go down.” Even more melodramatically, he claimed former Vice President Joe Biden wants to “abolish the suburbs.”

Biden painted those accusations as smears. Biden’s housing plan does identify exclusionary zoning as a problem and sets aside $65 billion in low-income housing funding for jurisdictions “willing to implement zoning laws that encourage more affordable housing.” However, this incremental incentives-driven approach hardly qualifies as the wholesale top-down elimination Trump portrayed.

Trump must have been keeled over on a Victorian feinting couch when he painted his nightmarish vision of the consequences of loosening single-family zoning laws, which bear little resemblance to empirical housing research. Building low-income housing does not cause housing prices to collapse.

$65 billion in new incentives for state housing authorities and the Indian Housing Block Grant program to construct or rehabilitate low-cost, efficient, resilient, and accessible housing in areas where affordable housing is in short supply. These funds will be directed toward communities that are suffering from an affordability crisis and that are willing to implement new zoning laws that encourage more affordable housing. 

Joe Biden’s Housing Plan

He followed up his townhall comments with tweets boasting of killing Obama’s Affirmatively Further Fair Housing (AFFH) rule and blocking low-income housing.

“I am happy to inform all of the people living their Suburban Lifestyle Dream that you will no longer be bothered or financially hurt by having low income housing built in your neighborhood,” Trump said on Wednesday. “Your housing prices will go up based on the market, and crime will go down. I have rescinded the Obama-Biden AFFH Rule. Enjoy!”

Enacted in 2015, AFFH aims to reduce racial segregation in the suburbs, and Trump has had it in his sights for some time. Republican leaders have long sought to shrink low-income housing investments, and Trump highlighted the greed underlying that goal.

In so brashly making the case for keeping suburbs segregated, Trump has helped unmask the racism underlying opposition to local low-income housing and single-family zoning preservation. In other words, he may have aided the housing justice movement. Some observers also argued Trump’s suburban vision is antiquated; suburbs are no longer as racially segregated as in yesteryear. In fact, many suburbs are more diverse than their proximate center cities.

Likely, Trump’s desperate appeal to suburbanites will fail–polls sugguest he has tons of ground to make up. Still, anyone who has fought for zoning reform and more housing in their neighborhood knows that it’s a charged topic and converting opponents is very challenging. The gamble might just help him.

I doubt Trump will gain new votes from Wallingford Craftsmen households that sported anti-upzone lawn signs and fought Mandatory Housing Affordability rezones. But will these folks stop and examine why they find themselves on the same side as the president?

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Doug Trumm is The Urbanist's Executive Director. An Urbanist writer since 2015, he dreams of pedestrianizing streets, blanketing the city in bus lanes, and unleashing a mass timber building spree to end the affordable housing shortage and avert our coming climate catastrophe. He graduated from the Evans School of Public Policy and Governance at the University of Washington. He lives in East Fremont and loves to explore the city on his bike.

7 COMMENTS

  1. MFTE makes affordable units for only 12 years, in exchange for no property taxes. They time out and the public is left with nothing for our investment.They are not truly affordable to low-income people (>60% of AMI) and are a huge giveaway to developers. We the taxpaying public got skunked.

    The MHA proponents projected half of the low-income units would be included onsite by the developer and half would pay the fee, but only 12% are being built onsite. This proves that the MHA fees are too low. When the developer chooses to pay the fee instead, it covers only $83,000 per unit, leaving the City and nonprofits to raise the rest. This was a huge and expensive miscalculation. Make it mandatory incluaionary like SF and NYC. The taxpayers are getting skunked.

    You neglected to consider the 23% of single-family houses that are rented. Large, extended immigrant families have no place else to go, yet these are the homes most likely to be displaced by gentrifiers. What is your plan for preserving affordable family-sized housing?

  2. There are 80 units going up on Densmore right across from Hamilton. Wouldn’t it have been more beneficial to have 20 larger units for low income families than to squeeze 80 efficiency units? As someone who lives close by, I would rather see kids playing on street or walking to school than to see a dozen or more people searching for parking spaces at 6pm. And it would make so much SENSE for those new dwellings to be family friendly because of the proximity to schools and the park. I am pro-density but I feel that there already is inventory for individuals…and maybe not enough, but the priority should be for families…or at least, change the ratio of efficiency dwellings and larger family dwellings.

  3. I am one of those Wallingford Craftsman owners and while I don’t see myself on the same side as 45, can you please explain to me how an 80 unit apodment building in Wallingford, with less than 300sq ft of living space is actually useful to low income families? I just don’t get it and I feel duped.

    • Apodments are not intended for families. It provides another housing option for lower-income individuals. The Apodment building boom is mostly over because stricter rules passed by council, which favor relatively larger small efficiency homes rather than congregate housing like Apodments. https://www.theurbanist.org/2016/02/16/a-year-after-new-microhousing-rules-went-into-effect-neither-side-should-be-happy-with-the-outcome/

      No housing type is directly useful to every household–I would never want to live in a 3,000+ square-foot home for example and yet the market produces tons of that housing type. Nonetheless, in congregate, the more options across a range of rents we have the better.

      Low-income families (esp. with multiple kids) are the hardest segment of the housing market to serve. Market-rate rents for multi-bedrooms are far too high. MFTE units (discounted homes in exchange for a property tax break) are geared toward middle income range and are mostly one-bedrooms. The City and nonprofit developers try but struggle to create enough 2- and 3- and 4-bedroom units. MHA and the new JumpStart Seattle program will help boost low-income housing production in coming years. If you know a better way to house low-income families, I’m all ears.

    • For some reason cannot reply directly to HALAconfused…

      Assume these 80 apodments will be occupied with single a single person each. This means 80 fewer people will compete for other kind of housing, including renting larger houses and apartments together (this is quite common among students and young professionals). This would free up 20 houses if all those 80 were coming from renting a joint home in Seattle.

      Now in practice some of these people are coming not from Seattle, and some of what will be freed up will be snatched by more wealthy households expanding instead, but my bet is maybe 1/3 of the cases will actually benefit less wealthy families.

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