HUD Secretary: 'We Cannot Just Go Into a Community and Change All of Their Zoning or Planning Ordinances'

By Susan Jones | May 21, 2021 | 6:54am EDT
(Photo by Keith Getter/Getty Images)
(Photo by Keith Getter/Getty Images)

( - At a congressional hearing on Thursday, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Marcia Fudge explained how "not-in-my-backyard" syndrome stymies the supply of affordable housing in "communities of opportunity."

She said the federal government can offer incentives (taxpayer money) for communities to change their zoning laws. "But we cannot just go into a community and change all of their zoning or--or planning ordinances."

Fudge was responding to Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who wants the federal government to pay communities if they remove certain zoning restrictions such as bans on multi-family housing and lot-size requirements.

The Biden administration agrees with Warren.

President Biden's American Jobs Plan calls for the elimination of "exclusionary zoning and harmful land use policies."

As the White House explains it: "For decades, exclusionary zoning laws -- like minimum lot sizes, mandatory parking requirements, and prohibitions on multifamily housing -- have inflated housing and construction costs and locked families out of areas with more opportunities. President Biden is calling on Congress to enact an innovative, new competitive grant program that awards flexible and attractive funding to jurisdictions that take concrete steps to eliminate such needless barriers to producing affordable housing."

Fudge said exclusionary or "restrictive" zoning laws increase the cost of housing and limit where it can be built:

If you have restrictive zoning ordinances, then there are two things that happen, or can happen. One is that where there is available land, you cannot build, or the zoning is so onerous that it costs you more money to build. Maybe they put all kinds of restrictions on it that increase the cost of buying the property.

The other thing it does is it just basically says to people in our communities we do not want you to live in our neighborhood if you are low income, if you are a person of color. And so, what we have found is that these laws have been around some very long that the jobs plan now gives us the opportunity to go into communities with some incentives to assist them in how we discuss it, how we can give them the kind of technical assistance to change it, how we engage communities so that we can have a better narrative about why we should allow new housing and housing that is not restrictive in communities that historically have prevented us from building.

Warren asked why the federal government can't just make changes "on its own, to get this housing built."

"Well, they really can't," Fudge said. "A lot of the zoning laws are--are really just local--they're local ordinances, many of which we cannot change as the federal government.

"Now, we can talk about discrimination overall. We can talk about civil rights overall. But we cannot just go into a community and change all of their zoning or--or planning ordinances.

"And that is why we want to engage communities with conversation, with technical assistance, to talk to them about how they can change them, how they can--maybe we can come to some agreement that makes them not as restrictive and not as costly."

Warren plugged her American Housing and Economic Mobility Act, which "includes a new $10 billion housing innovation grant program that would provide funding so that local governments can use it to build things like parks or schools" if communities remove "unnecessary barriers to building affordable units in their communities."

Fudge said such a grant program would be "helpful."

"And it's certainly something that I'd like to really get into some more detail with you about, because until we can get to that point that we can include the kinds of things you're talking about, we're going to forever have people locked out of communities of opportunity, given the opportunity to go to better schools, to…have better jobs and to build well. So, I would very much like us to continue that conversation."

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