So the President Has a Housing Task Force, but What Can the Feds Really Do?

July 12, 2019

On June 25, President Trump signed an executive order “establishing a White House council on eliminating regulatory barriers to affordable housing.” Section 1 of the document makes the reasoning for the new entity clear. Increasing housing costs are a government-created burden on renters in particular, and this burden degrades both quality of life and access to economic opportunity for a large, vulnerable population.

While the costs of high and increasing rents are clear—“the rent is too [expletive] high” is an old meme for a reason—it is unclear what power the president or executive agencies have to stem the problem directly. Local governments and the states they report to will always play the leading role in housing politics.

But the executive branch does have tools at its disposal. The order states that the administration will work to address “the multitude of overly burdensome regulatory barriers that artificially raise the cost of housing development and help to cause the lack of housing supply.” This implies the council could recommend any number of changes that would lower construction costs and ease the building process, even though the federal government lacks the power to remove burdensome municipal land-use rules on its own.

One promising path would be to change rules that govern local access to federal housing subsidies. As it stands, the Department of Housing and Urban Development requires public housing agencies to submit plans annually and every five years. Current plans must assess the needs of vulnerable households, including low-income and elderly families, and devise a strategy for providing housing to satisfy the outlined needs. This process could be strengthened to encourage public housing agencies to work toward using their properties more intensely. HUD could mandate that all agencies receiving subsidies include increased housing density in their goals and objectives.

Similarly, they could be forced to consider how access to cheap housing archetypes—including boarding houses, single room occupancy apartments and trailer homes—can stem social problems and lower other public costs. Plans must already include ways that public housing agency plans mitigate problems stemming from domestic violence. A natural extension would be to consider how they can work toward similar goals with other vulnerable populations. With more complete public housing agency plans, local governments would face more pressure to zone for a multitude of housing options beyond costly owner-occupied single-family homes.

Outside of HUD, federal officials could address housing affordability by working to lower the costs of building for infrastructure that supports housing development. New homes require access to water and sewer pipes, poles and conduits for electricity and internet service, and roads and highways for transportation. Making it cheaper and easier to improve the nation’s infrastructure can take the sting out of worries that new residents might mean crowding problems for disadvantaged groups who already live in gentrifying neighborhoods.

With construction costs high by world standards, there’s plenty of room for improvement but a few proposals stand out. The impetus for federal involvement is strongest for large, region-serving infrastructure that crosses state lines. Broadening the mandate of the Federal Permitting Improvement Steering Committee would speed construction of large highway, power and water management projects that will facilitate long-term housing growth in developing regions. Similarly, but at a smaller scale, mandating coordination of infrastructure construction and maintenance via “dig once” provisions would make it faster and cheaper to deliver power and high speed internet to new homes .

With a broad mandate to work with many federal, state, local and tribal stakeholders, the president’s affordable housing council could recommend any number of changes to housing regulation in America. While local and state officials are still in the driver’s seat, a nudge toward considering the full social cost of expensive rental housing could help ease the pain. And indirect improvements, like those that make infrastructure cheaper to build, would help dense, affordable housing withstand local criticism. Untangling the dueling incentives of housing will always be a challenge, but at least the administration has shown a willingness to take its shot at one of the largest problems facing America today.

Nick Zaiac is a Catalyst Policy Fellow and a Fellow in Commercial Freedom at the R Street Institute where his portfolio includes housing, postal and transportation issues. He holds a master's degree in economics from George Mason University. He lives in Washington, DC with his wife, Ali.
Catalyst articles by Nick Zaiac