Will Trump do for NIMBYism what he did for trade and immigration?

The GOP has traditionally been the party that is more skeptical of economic regulations, including zoning restrictions. Republican states like Texas have far more lenient zoning rules than Democratic states like California.

But just as Trump moved the GOP away from its traditional views on trade and immigration, he seems to be doing the same on zoning.
I say, “seems” because his tweets are so vague that it’s hard to be sure. But that’s certainly the perception out there, and there’s some evidence to support that claim.

For the sake of this post, there are three groups to consider. President Obama enacted a “progressive” policy to promote housing construction that was also highly complex and interventionist. Conservative intellectuals tended to oppose the Obama regulations, and support a streamlined approach that focused mostly on reducing zoning barriers to new construction. A new group of conservatives likes zoning rules, as they are seen as preserving suburbs full of single-family homes.

As of January, the anti-zoning conservatives seem to have had won, and Ben Carson’s proposed rule changes reflected their views. But this is an election year, and the final version of the rules rejected the anti-zoning conservative approach and went with the pro-zoning conservatives, who are motivated by some combination of favoring “local control” and genuine support for zoning. Trump began sending out his typical dog whistle tweets about protecting real Americans in their suburban utopias from those awful people who might move in if we don’t stop them.

Here’s Reason:

But by reversing course on its own proposed rule, the Trump administration has passed on an opportunity to impose a fair housing rule that would do a better job of fulfilling the purpose of the fair housing act, while also incentivizing freer markets in land use across the country.

It’s a symbolic defeat for those who had hoped that Trump’s deregulatory promises and the explicitly YIMBY-inflected rhetoric coming from administration officials would prevail over his toxic culture war politics.

With the preceding in mind, consider the following quote from New York magazine:

Alas, if Trump has an intuitive grasp of white suburbia’s id, he has no feel for its superego. Making it impossible for poor people to move to your town — and thus, lay a claim on your local tax dollars, or the time and attention of your kid’s public school teachers — clearly has some appeal to left-leaning suburbanites. But being confronted with the fact that this is what they are doing when they oppose new construction — let alone, that by doing so they are effectively entrenching racial segregation — has no appeal to this voting bloc. NIMBY liberals want racially exclusionary zoning policies wrapped up in rhetoric about historical preservation, not Trump’s garish branding.

In fact, by ripping off liberal NIMBYism’s Jane Jacobs mask — and revealing that it was actually Old Man Racism all along — Trump likely did more to advance the cause of neighborhood desegregation than that of his own reelection. A variety of euphemisms — and the fact that zoning laws are a form of government regulation — have helped liberal NIMBYs reconcile their political identities with their reactionary housing politics. Trump has now made that task more difficult. Meanwhile, among liberal homeowners who’d previously lacked strong views about local housing debates, Trump’s intervention could be a catalyst for pro-inclusive-zoning voting behavior and civic engagement. The president has already demonstrated a gift for mobilizing Democrats against regressive policies they’d previously abided (or even supported). There are large and important distinctions between the Obama and Trump administrations’ immigration policies. But there’s no question that the unabashed racism of the latter’s rhetoric on border security made white liberals less tolerant of mass deportation — and more supportive of Central American migrants’ asylum rights — than they had been under Trump’s predecessor. Similarly, by associating opposition to immigration and trade with xenophobic nationalism, Trump has brought the American public’s support for both those pillars of “globalism” to new heights.

Yes, New York magazine has a strong liberal bias. But notice that this piece is actually critical of the typical suburban Democratic voter in places like California. They are counting on Trump to (indirectly) make the Democrats see the light on zoning.

It’s certainly true that support among Democrats (in public opinion polls) for trade and immigration has soared under Trump. Whether that change of heart is sincere is another question. But it a minimum, Trump’s recent statements might make YIMBYism poll better, at least for a while.

Of course it’s policy that matters, and we won’t know the answer to that question (on trade, immigration and zoning) until the next time the Dems take power.

Back in the era of Ronald Reagan and Jack Kemp, conservatives would have been slightly ashamed to promote government regulations that help some upper middle class whites and hurt lower income minorities. That sense of shame is gone—now they promote these tribal views loudly and proudly.



13 Responses to “Will Trump do for NIMBYism what he did for trade and immigration?”

  1. Gravatar of Daniel Molling Daniel Molling
    3. August 2020 at 13:36

    Fortunately, for zoning, we don’t have to wait until the Democrats are back in power. I live in small, extremely liberal Ann Arbor and have been following current city council elections (which take place tomorrow as here the Dem primary is the only election that matters here). Democrats have been in power for a long time. The races are falling almost entirely on NIMBY vs YIMBY lines. Five council races feature YIMBY liberals (3 of them incumbents) facing strong primary opposition by a YIMBY liberal candidate.

    Muuch more than previous years there has been discussion of the racist history of zoning or Trump’s tweets, sometimes by candidates or in ads. Those tweets were a gift to the YIMBY candidates (although I still really don’t have a strong sense of who is likely to win at this point). Here and in a lot of places it’s the city council and Mayor elections that matter for zoning policy. I’m hoping we’ll be seeing policy change in the next few months!

  2. Gravatar of Ronald Ronald
    3. August 2020 at 14:54

    not all trade is equal. Some industries need protection. And the digital landscape alters how countries benefit from trade (especially in tech).

    Your view is incorrect.

  3. Gravatar of Benjamin Cole Benjamin Cole
    3. August 2020 at 15:27

    The best solution would be no property-zoning regulations at all.

    The best policy for the US woulf obtain chronically loose property markets and chronically tight labor markets.

    In general, the US has been following the opposite policies for the last 50 years, and we are reaping our harvest.

  4. Gravatar of David S David S
    3. August 2020 at 23:37

    For more than 50 years Benjamin Cole—the craze for local zoning regulations took root in the 1930’s. Granted, it started bearing the most bitter fruit after the 1970’s in places like New York City, Boston Metro area, Orange County/So. Cal, San Francisco, and D.C. region.

    At a national level, it’s a political dead end because it’s too confusing. At the local level, it brings out the worst in us. I’m intrigued by the current efforts at reforming single-family use restrictions in a few municipal areas, but it’s going to be a long road.

  5. Gravatar of Benjamin Cole Benjamin Cole
    4. August 2020 at 00:21

    David S—

    You are correct, see Village of Euclid, Ohio v. Ambler Realty Co. 1928. Thats when the Supremes said zoning was constitutional, in a split vote. Though the case regarded industrial zoning, one of the judges gratuitously wrote he did not like apartments showing up in single-family detached neighborhoods.

    Presently, zoning has become a system for extracting economic rent from non-property owners, as well as limiting commercial and even personal freedoms for property owners.

    It will never be reformed.

    There are no atheists in foxholes and no libertarians when neighborhood property zoning is under review.

  6. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    4. August 2020 at 10:48

    Daniel, Very interesting. Please report back with the results.

  7. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    4. August 2020 at 19:32

    Daniel, It seems like the YIMBY’s won all five races–is that right?

  8. Gravatar of Matthias Görgens Matthias Görgens
    5. August 2020 at 00:09

    Ronald, is that the old infant industry argument again or something new?

  9. Gravatar of Daniel Molling Daniel Molling
    5. August 2020 at 07:57

    I just came here to post the results–yes, a clean sweep for the YIMBYs!

  10. Gravatar of Daniel Molling Daniel Molling
    5. August 2020 at 07:59

    Hopefully an indication of more YIMBY policy (at least in democrat-controlled cities) to come

  11. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    5. August 2020 at 08:27

    Thanks Daniel, Does the local reporting treat it as a bit of an upset? Does the reporting suggest that Trump’s comments might have made a difference?

  12. Gravatar of Daniel Molling Daniel Molling
    5. August 2020 at 09:39

    I listened to the mayor’s interview after the race and am in a facebook group with some political insiders. They seemed fairly surprised to win all of the races and especially by such large margins.

    But, after seeing some reactions my sense is for most of the races they were viewing the YIMBY candidates as having a slight advantage going in. Trump’s comments did seem to make a difference and might have helped clinch one or two of the closer races, though.

  13. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    5. August 2020 at 10:19

    Thanks Daniel.

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