Zoning emerges as a political issue

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Two major developments indicate that zoning may be on the verge of becoming a major political issue. This is in direct response to growing measures by Democrats at the federal and state levels to eliminate single-family zoning. Zoning control is a core function of local government, which means federal and state government efforts to stifle local control are direct attacks on our federalist system.

The first indication of the possible emergence of zoning as a major political issue is a new ad speak conservative Frontières de la Liberté Foundation. The announcement highlights the support of Virginia Democratic candidate for governor Terry McAuliffe for President Biden’s plans to undermine single-family zoning. The ad informs voters that attacks on local zoning control can also come from states.

Although not widely reported, after a series of bitter legislative battles, the California legislature recently abolished single-family zoning – despite considerable opposition from Democrats and Republicans, including many minorities. The announcement of the anti-McAuliffe attack pointedly reminds voters in Virginia of the news from California.

California, in turn, is the source of the second great political development. Although the story of SB 9, the state of California’s ban on zoning for single-family homes, has had limited national reach to date, there is a movement about to put a measure on the 2022 California poll that would effectively overrule SB 9 by restoring local control over zoning. While signature collection has yet to begin, it’s relatively easy to get a statewide referendum in California, especially on a high-profile issue like this.

California’s voting measures are gaining national attention. A referendum on local zoning control in the country’s largest state would dramatically raise the profile of this issue. Along with the Biden administration’s relaunch of Obama’s Radical Regulation to Promote Fair Housing (AFFH) and further congressional efforts to eliminate single-family zoning (perhaps in the Great Infrastructure Bill, if we ever find out what’s in it), a referendum could bring this issue to the forefront of the national scene. And if McAuliffe breaks down after an ad campaign focused on the zoning issue, it will serve as a roadmap for Republicans in other states.

For years, zoning as a national political issue has been more a matter of theory than practice. I wrote on Obama’s plans to remove zoning for single-family homes long before the AFFF was even released. At the time, the left denied that such a plan was in the works. Then Obama set up the AFFH, but so close to the end of his second term that he had to depend on a potential president, Hillary Clinton, to implement it. Instead, President Trump suspended AFFH and ultimately killed it. With Biden reviving the AFFH and the infrastructure bill in limbo, the active enforcement of federal laws designed to eliminate single-family zoning is not yet quite a reality.

Yet the emergence of state-level zoning bans for single-family homes, in conjunction with major federal efforts in the same direction, could be about to shift this problem into high gear. Democrats have always feared their plans to do away with single-family zoning would be politically unpopular, even with many Democrats. However, they have yet to face the political consequences of their own policies. With local zoning control now injected into the Virginia governor’s race and a California referendum most likely underway, that could be about to change.

Stanley Kurtz is a senior researcher at the Center for Ethics and Public Policy.

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