There was a time in recent American history when local governments didn’t depend on grants from federal agencies for zoning and permitting decisions. Sadly, those days appear to be over. If your city or county accepts money from the federal government via Housing and Urban Development’s Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) and Home Investment Partnership Program, it may be time to stop. Both programs now fall under the “Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing” and “Assessment of Fair Housing” guidelines.
“Furthering fair housing” is D.C.-speak for federal Housing and Urban Development (HUD) bureaucrats meddling in local housing divisions, down to dictating who becomes your neighbors. Local governments will lose their control over planning and development, and property owners and their property values will be the ultimate losers.
Imagine walking into your local planning commission meeting to check the status of your site plans for a new home in a subdivision just outside city limits. The meeting begins when a HUD official declares he is the newest member of your local planning commission. As an official member, the HUD representative’s first act is to enforce the federal government’s goal of “housing equality” by re-zoning your subdivision to include a number of low-income housing units, one of which will be placed right next door to you. You stand up to object, but the other members of the planning commission admit their hands are tied and they have no choice but to agree with HUD’s plans for your neighborhood. As a result, several of the building sites are abandoned, home sale contracts fall through, your home value plummets and you are left with a withered investment.
Sound farfetched? Ask Westchester County (NY) Executive Rob Asterino:
“The Federal government has a very different agenda and vision for Westchester. In fact, HUD calls us, its ‘Grand Experiment.’ That means Washington bureaucrats, who you will never see or meet, want the power to determine who will live where, and how each neighborhood will look. Now what’s at stake is the fundamental right of our cities, towns and villages to plan and zone for themselves. This ‘home rule’ is guaranteed by the New York State Constitution. HUD thinks it can trample on Westchester, because it has the misguided notion that zoning and discrimination are the same thing. They are not. Zoning restricts what can be built, not who lives there.”
Westchester is the canary in the coal mine. Imagine what cities and counties across the country will have to endure under HUD’s new guidelines.
Marc Thiessen of The Washington Post envisions future HUD policy: “Then the government will target communities with results it doesn’t like and use billions of dollars in federal grant money to bribe or blackmail them into changing their zoning and housing policies.”
According to the federal register, effective July 16, 2015, HUD released its final ruling on what it calls an “improved structure and process” whereby HUD would provide program participants with guidance, data, and a template from which they would complete an assessment of fair housing (AFH). This assessment would then link to Consolidated Plans, Public Housing Agency Plans, and Capital Fund Plans, informing resulting investments and related policies to affirmatively further fair housing. To aid communities in this work, HUD will provide open data to grantees and the public on patterns of integration and segregation, racially and ethnically concentrated areas of poverty, disproportionate housing needs, and disparities in access to opportunity. This “improved approach” provides a “better” mechanism for HUD grantees to build fair housing goals into their existing community development and housing planning processes.
Contrary to the language of the new ruling, there is nothing improved or better about these HUD guidelines. Put simply, if your community receives money from HUD, you will be forced to make housing decisions according to what the federal government deems as “fair housing,” or you will lose funding for your community. In the end, low income families will lose access to federal funding from HUD as local governments opt out of HUD grants to maintain local control over development. Local governments are best suited to decide urban development plans because they know the education, transportation and housing needs of their constituents, while Washington, D.C. does not.
We would be better served if local officials would head the advice of Calvin Coolidge: “What we need is not more Federal government, but better local government.”
Jon Russell is a Town Councilman in Culpeper, VA and Director of the American City County Exchange.