Ethics & Public Policy Center

Regionalism: Obama’s Quiet Anti-Suburban Revolution

Published in National Review Online on July 30, 2013



The consensus response to President Obama’s Knox College speech on the economy is that the administration has been reduced to pushing a menu of stale and timid policies that, in any case, won’t be enacted. But what if the administration isn’t actually out of ideas? What if Obama’s boldest policy initiative is merely something he’d rather not discuss? And what if that initiative is being enacted right now?

A year ago, I published Spreading the Wealth: How Obama Is Robbing the Suburbs to Pay for the Cities. There I described the president’s second-term plan to press a transformative “regionalist” agenda on the country. Early but unmistakable signs indicate that Obama’s regionalist push is well underway. Yet the president doesn’t discuss his regionalist moves and the press does not report them.

The most obvious new element of the president’s regionalist policy initiative is the July 19 publication of a Department of Housing and Urban Development regulation broadening the obligation of recipients of federal aid to “affirmatively further fair housing.” The apparent purpose of this rule change is to force suburban neighborhoods with no record of housing discrimination to build more public housing targeted to ethnic and racial minorities. Several administration critics noticed the change and challenged it, while the mainstream press has simply declined to cover the story.

Yet even critics have missed the real thrust of HUD’s revolutionary rule change. That’s understandable, since the Obama administration is at pains to downplay the regionalist philosophy behind its new directive. The truth is, HUD’s new rule is about a great deal more than forcing racial and ethnic diversity on the suburbs. (Regionalism, by the way, is actually highly controversial among minority groups. There are many ways in which both middle-class minorities in suburbs, and less well-off minorities in cities, can be hurt by regionalist policies–another reason those plans are seldom discussed.)

The new HUD rule is really about changing the way Americans live. It is part of a broader suite of initiatives designed to block suburban development, press Americans into hyper-dense cities, and force us out of our cars. Government-mandated ethnic and racial diversification plays a role in this scheme, yet the broader goal is forced “economic integration.” The ultimate vision is to make all neighborhoods more or less alike, turning traditional cities into ultra-dense Manhattans, while making suburbs look more like cities do now. In this centrally-planned utopia, steadily increasing numbers will live cheek-by-jowl in “stack and pack” high-rises close to public transportation, while automobiles fall into relative disuse. To understand how HUD’s new rule will help enact this vision, we need to turn to a less-well-known example of the Obama administration’s regionalist interventionism.

In the face of heated public protest, on July 18, two local agencies in metropolitan San Francisco approved “Plan Bay Area,” a region-wide blueprint designed to control development in the nine-county, 101-town region around San Francisco for the next 30 years. The creation of a region-wide development plan–although it flies in the face of America’s core democratic commitment to local control–is mandated by California’s SB 375, the Sustainable Communities and Climate Protection Act of 2008. The ostensible purpose of this law is to combat global warming through the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. That is supposedly why California’s legislature empowered regional planning commissions to override local governments and press development away from suburbs into densely-packed urban areas. In fact, the reduction of greenhouse gases (which Plan Bay Area does little to secure) largely serves as a pretext for undercutting the political and economic independence of California suburbs.

Essentially, Plan Bay Area attempts to block the development of any new suburbs, forcing all population growth over the next three decades into the existing “urban footprint” of the region. The plan presses 70-80 percent of all new housing and 66 percent of all business expansion into 150 or so “priority development areas” (PDAs), select neighborhoods near subway stations and other public transportation facilities. This scheme will turn up to a quarter of the region’s existing neighborhoods–many now dotted with San Francisco’s famously picturesque, Victorian-style single-family homes–into mini-Manhattans jammed with high-rises and tiny apartments. The densest PDAs will be many times denser than Manhattan. (See the powerful ten-minute audio-visual assault on Plan Bay Area at the 45-55 minute mark of this debate.)

In effect, by preventing the development of new suburbs, and reducing traditional single-family home development in existing suburbs, Plan Bay Area will squeeze 30 years worth of in-migrating population into a few small urban enclaves, and force most new businesses into the same tight quarters. The result will be a steep increase in the Bay Area’s already out-of-control housing prices. This will hit the poor and middle class the hardest. While some poor and minority families will receive tiny subsidized apartments in the high-rise PDAs, many others will find themselves displaced by the new development, or priced out of the local housing market altogether.

A regional plan that blocks traditional suburban development, densifies cities, and urbanizes suburbs on this scale is virtually unprecedented. That’s why the Obama administration awarded the agencies behind Plan Bay Area its second-highest “Sustainable Communities Grant” in 2012. Indeed, the terms of the administration’s grant reinforce the pressure for density. The official rationale behind the federal award is “encouraging connections” between jobs, housing, and transportation.

That sounds like a directive to locate new residents–poor and minorities included–in existing prosperous communities. In fact, HUD’s new emphasis on “connecting” jobs housing and transportation does more. In practice, bland bureaucratic language about blending jobs, housing, and transportation pressures localities to create Manhattan-style “priority development areas.” The San Francisco case reveals the administration’s broader intentions. Soon HUD and other agencies will begin to press localities directly, rather than through the medium of California’s new regionalist scheme. Replicating Plan Bay Area nationwide is the Obama administration’s goal.

The Enactment of Plan Bay Area was wildly controversial among those who managed to learn about it, yet went largely unnoticed in the region as a whole. One of the chief complaints of the plan’s opponents was the relative lack of publicity accorded a decision with such transformative implications. Critics called for a public vote, and complained that the bureaucrats in charge hadn’t been elected.

Another theme of critics was that “the fix” seemed to be in from the start. Input was largely ignored, opponents claimed, and public forums offered only the illusion of consultation. Although it’s gone largely unreported, that accusation is far truer than even the opponents of Plan Bay Area realize.

Here’s where the Obama administration comes in. Not only does acceptance of the administration’s $5 million grant make it next-to-impossible to de-densify Plan Bay Area, but the grant itself helps to fund “grassroots” supporters of the plan–leftist groups dedicated to radicalizing the scheme still further.

The administration’s “sustainable communities” grants generally require recipients to “partner” with local leftist community organizations. Opponents of Plan Bay Area often outnumber supporters at public meetings. Yet such supporters as are present–groups like TransForm, the Greenbelt Alliance, Marin Grassroots, and East Bay Housing Organization–are funded (or slated to be funded)with the help of the same federal grant that backs up the bureaucrats in charge.

Press accounts of the Plan Bay Area controversy generally say nothing about the financial interest that “non-profit” “grassroots” organizations have in passage of the plan, or about pressures on the bureaucrats in charge to maintain their government-mandated “partnerships” with these community organizations. So when opponents of Plan Bay Area complain about officials simply going through the motions of public consultation, they’re right. The deck is stacked, the fix is in. By way of the federal grant, many of the “grassroots” groups that support Plan Bay Area are actually partners of the decision makers (the Metropolitan Transportation Commission and the Association of Bay Area Governments). The Obama administration’s role in all this, while generally unnoticed, is substantial.

If you complain that the regional bureaucracy behind Plan Bay Area undercuts democracy and local control, you’ll be told that local governments retain full authority over land-use within their jurisdictions. In reality, Plan Bay Area subverts that control, and the Obama administration plays a role here as well. The Metropolitan Transportation Commission (one of the two agencies in charge of Plan Bay Area) doles out state and federal transportation assistance. Now that Plan Bay Area has been formally approved, MTC can withhold billions of dollars in federal aid from suburban jurisdictions that refuse to densify, leaving local bridges and highways in disrepair. One of the core goals of the Obama administration’s Sustainable Communities Initiative is to use federal transportation aid as a stick to force regionalist planning on unwilling suburbs.

Recalcitrant suburbs can also be brought to heel by lawsuits claiming violations of federal fair housing law. California’s SB375 facilitates such suits by placing the burden of proof on local jurisdictions accused of housing discrimination. Such legal claims are often brought by leftist community organizations of the type currently funded through the Obama administration’s grant.

When criticism of Plan Bay Area reached a crescendo in suburban Marin County–the center of public opposition to the plan–the bureaucrats pared back their demands for densification in a few resistant municipalities. Obama’s HUD responded by charging that failure to assign more multifamily housing to suburban jurisdictions could violate federal fair housing law. So what looks like a softening of Plan Bay Area’s demands on a few suburban municipalities may ultimately be reversed. By publicly declaring suburban non-cooperation with Plan Bay Area a potential violation of federal housing law, and by funding organizations that could sue to bring resistant suburbs into compliance, the Obama administration is serving as a key enforcer of this controversial scheme.

All of which returns us to HUD’s controversial new regulation expanding the obligation of recipients of federal aid to “affirmatively further fair housing.” When HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan announced that rule change, he acknowledged that it wasn’t really focused on preventing “outright discrimination and access to the housing itself.” The Obama administration is using traditional anti-discrimination language as a cover for a re-engineering the way we live. The real goal is to Manhattanize America, and force us out of our cars.

The Plan Bay Area precedent makes it clear that HUD will use data on access to housing, jobs, and transportation to press densification on both urban and suburban jurisdictions. With the new HUD rule in place, municipalities will be under heavy pressure to allow multifamily developments in areas previously zoned for single-family housing. The new counting scheme, which measures access to housing, jobs, and transportation, will simultaneously create pressures to push businesses into the newly densified areas, and to locate those centers near transportation hubs. In effect, HUD’s new rule gives the federal government a tool to press ultra-dense Plan Bay Area-style “priority development areas” on regions across the country.

HUD’s new rule also allows the creation of regional housing consortia. Although the choice to join such regional housing partnerships would technically be voluntary, the administration will be able to use the same combination of legal threats and funding leverage we’ve seen in San Francisco to pressure municipalities to join the consortia.

Over the next few years, select Regional Planning Grants funded under the Obama administration’s Sustainable Communities Initiative will be issuing regional development plans guided by the same philosophy that informs Plan Bay Area. So even in states without California-style regionalist legislation in place, a federally-funded structure with the potential to override local control, block suburban development, and force densification will be created. The Obama administration’s goal is to use legal and financial carrots and sticks to press Plan Bay Area clones on regions across the country through its federally-funded Regional Planning Grant program. The new HUD rule will be folded into this broader strategy. (I lay out the structure, philosophy, and history of that strategy in Spreading the Wealth.)

When Secretary Donovan announced the sweeping new HUD rule, he said: “Make no mistake: this is a big deal.” He’s right. Yet the mainstream press has ignored the change, as well as the broader story behind it. Recognizing the politically explosive nature of its regionalist plans, the Obama administration does little to connect the dots for the public at large. Above all, the president himself avoids this issue, although it’s deeply embedded in his administration’s policies.

Obama isn’t actually out of bold ideas. They’re simply too controversial for him to discuss. The time has come for a national debate on the Obama administration’s regionalist policies.

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

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