Doing Something About Affordable Housing

Red tape, overweening bureaucracy, unconquerable swampism, the rein of regulations — call it what you will — were addressed on Tuesday when President Donald Trump signed an order creating the White House Council on Eliminating Barriers to Affordable Housing Development.

The new council, representing eight federal agencies, will be charged with reducing the myriad rules that make it hard to provide housing that working people can afford.

When elected officials want to acknowledge a problem but not necessarily solve it, at least not in the near future, they appoint panels to study it and make recommendations. That allows them to appear reform-minded without an actual commitment to do anything, not even to read the committee’s report once it’s ready.

Thankfully, this committee was created not merely to study the problem. It’s actually a mandate to do something.

As a White House statement said: “At the president’s direction, the Council will take action to reduce Federal regulatory barriers to affordable housing development.”

The benefit to the average American could be tremendous. Home construction has been on an alarming downward curve, currently approaching its lowest level in 60 years of record-keeping, with a shortage of everything from so-called starter homes for young families to rental apartments for retirees on fixed incomes.

Who’s to blame? Well, federal data shows that more than 25 percent of the cost of a new home is the direct result of regulations at all levels of government, even accounting for as much as 42 percent of the cost for some new multifamily construction. So deregulation is as good a place as any to start in fixing this.

Of course, Donald Trump isn’t the first president to talk about deregulation, or even to do something about it. Deregulation is one of the oldest occupants of that hoary category known as “easier-said-than-done.” For example, the Obama administration tried to improve the situation in 2016 with a toolkit for local governments to break down regulatory barriers, but the barriers won.

However, given HUD Secretary Ben Carson’s years of direct experience in dealing with the housing problem, he will presumably require little, if any, further instruction, and should be ready to start dismantling barriers at all levels in short order.

It’s known that many regulations have been on the books for decades, and although they made sense when they were first enacted, they don’t anymore. It will be the task of the council to identify and eliminate such obsolescence.

In a conversation with reporters, a senior administration official spoke about a recent visit to Minnesota, “where they have decided to deregulate in terms of the zoning requirement for single-family housing. That resulted in the production of a beautiful multi-family dwelling, which everybody is proud of. Those are the kinds of things that will make a big difference. And we’ll be taking best practices, spreading them around, and using the influence and the ability of each of the agencies to work in a coordinated manner so that things can be done quickly.”

The housing initiative has been the subject of some criticism, though, which is par for the course on such a big issue affecting so many people as well as various business and political interests.

One criticism was not about the issue, but rather was a criticism of the HUD secretary on other grounds. It was brought up on Tuesday that Carson has allegedly focused attention on local governments and the private sector, while neglecting HUD’s responsibility to enforce the Fair Housing Act, which forbids practices such as concentrating affordable housing in poorer areas.

“An effort by this administration to address restrictive local zoning would be welcomed if it weren’t belied by other actions to gut affordable and fair housing in America,” said Diane Yentel, president and chief executive of the nonprofit National Low-Income Housing Coalition.

Carson answered her by saying that she misread the cause of such discrimination:

“The thing that creates segregation is not George Wallace-type people standing at the door saying you can’t come in here,” he said. “It’s cost. People tend to congregate in places that they can afford to live.”

This may not be the kind of answer that Yentel wants to hear, but it’s the path that Carson and colleagues will pursue in carrying out this presidential directive. Results will tell the tale, and that’s what the administration is after.