President Biden wants to transform the character of many American cities and suburbs by building more apartment buildings in quiet and frequently disproportionately White neighborhoods of single-family homes.
The Biden administration sees remnants of America’s segregationist past in what it calls “exclusionary” zoning laws, which allow only single-family homes in large swaths of cities and suburbs.
As part of a racial equity agenda the president is pursuing in his massive infrastructure plan, Mr. Biden would send federal grants to cities if they eliminate those zoning laws and allow more lower-income people, often minorities, in areas that typically have better schools and fewer social ills that plague poor, inner-city communities.
Zoning laws that allow only single-family houses “keep families from moving to neighborhoods with more opportunities for them and their kids,” the administration said in a fact sheet describing its $2.3 trillion infrastructure plan.
The administration also is arguing that increasing the supply of housing by encouraging more apartment buildings would bring down the cost of rent.
The idea has been proposed before, at since at least the Obama administration, and always runs into stiff opposition.
In a Wall Street Journal op-ed in August, President Trump and Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson derided the idea of federal government discouragement of single-family zoning. They called it a policy of “coercion, domination and control.”
Mr. Trump and Mr. Carson accused Democrats of plotting to destroy the suburbs.
“As usual, anyone who dares tell the truth about what the left is doing is smeared as a racist,” they wrote.
The plan also ran into opposition from residents in liberal cities such as Minnesota and Seattle, where areas limited to single-family homes have been cut back or eliminated.
Neighborhood groups, worried that the changes would devastate their communities, filed lawsuits.
“The random intrusion of high-rises, McMansions, visually disruptive architecture allowed by Minneapolis 2040 would all but destroy the unique character of our neighborhoods,” said Minneapolis for Everyone, a coalition of community groups, referring to the city’s zoning changes.
Minneapolis in 2018 took the boldest step yet on the affordable housing front by eliminating zoning laws that allowed only single-family houses in about two-thirds of the city. The city is allowing duplexes and triplexes to be built in those areas.
The Seattle City Council followed suit in 2019 by voting unanimously to allow apartments in about 6% of the areas in the city where only single-family homes had been allowed. A coalition of neighborhood groups is challenging that plan as well.
Proponents argue that Black families are less likely than White families to be able to afford property in areas limited to single-family homes, which tend to be expensive and sometimes prohibit rental units.
Policies barring Blacks from being able to borrow money to buy homes in certain areas may be gone, but policies such as single-family zoning can keep minorities out of the most desirable neighborhoods, racial justice activists argue.
“What’s confusing to people is why segregation is so persistent in this country,” said Tracy Hadden Loh, a scholar of metropolitan planning at the left-leaning Brookings Institution in Washington. “Racial segregation is like a hydra. You cut off one head and two pop up.”
Policies that make it easier to move out of inner cities, she said, also could make people of color less likely to have dangerous encounters with police.
Mr. Biden’s plan does not go as far as Sen. Cory A. Booker would like, though the president endorsed the New Jersey Democrat’s plan last year.
Mr. Booker proposed withholding federal transportation or community development dollars from jurisdictions that fail to eliminate single-family zoning. The White House did not respond to repeated inquiries about reviving the Booker plan.
While introducing his plan last year, Mr. Booker said his parents, like other Blacks, were discouraged by real estate agents in 1969 from moving to affluent suburbs of Newark, New Jersey.
“This is personal for me,” he said.
In the White House fact sheet, which mentions the word “racial” nine times, Mr. Biden made it clear that he wants to deal with racial justice through the infrastructure plan. “Unlike past major investments, the plan prioritizes addressing long-standing and persistent racial injustice,” it said.
The plan includes projects that would disproportionately affect people of color, including rehabilitation of public housing, replacement of lead pipes that cause health problems and an expansion of public transportation.
Sen. Patrick J. Toomey of Pennsylvania, the top Republican on the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee, acknowledged during a hearing of the panel last week that single-family zoning can lead to segregation.
“Some zoning practices, such as prohibitions on multifamily housing and minimum lot sizes, can have legitimate purposes for many communities,” he said. “However, they sometimes do great harm by pricing low-income and minority families out of neighborhoods and reducing the support of affordable housing for such families. These zoning practices and other regulatory barriers to housing development are particularly prevalent in Democrat states and cities.”
Still, he criticized Mr. Biden’s plan, particularly the proposed increase in spending on public housing.
“Now is not the time to double down on failed efforts,” Mr. Toomey said. “That means we should not keep American families in dilapidated and segregated housing projects. We should not let bureaucrats in Washington make local housing decisions that undermine communities.”
Senate Republicans did not include Mr. Biden’s zoning idea in a streamlined $568 billion counterproposal Thursday that is much more focused on “real” infrastructure, such as the nation’s roads and bridges.
To Ms. Loh, changing the nature of single-family neighborhoods is a test of the nation’s commitment to dealing with racial inequities.
“Do people want to live in an integrated society, or are people more comfortable in their own bubbles?” she asked.
David Ward, president of a coalition of Seattle neighborhood groups opposed to the new zoning regime, warned that the city’s plan would backfire.
The apartments that would go up could be expensive, despite the incentives the city is creating to build affordable housing in the formerly single-family areas, he said.
“It will make Seattle far more unaffordable and also make it more difficult to live here due to more traffic, not enough schools, more pollution, fewer trees and a loss of the diversity of residents we currently have,” Mr. Ward said.