Published June 30, 2020
President Trump had a great riff at his rally the other day in Phoenix. It was all about “abolish,” about how the Left wants to abolish the police, ICE, bail, even borders. Trump’s riff is effective because it is true. The Left has gone off the deep end, and they’re taking the Democrats with them.
Well, there’s another “abolish” the president can add to his list, and it just might be enough to tip the scales this November. Joe Biden and the Democrats want to abolish America’s suburbs. Biden and his party have embraced yet another dream of the radical Left: a federal takeover, transformation, and de facto urbanization of America’s suburbs. What’s more, Biden just might be able to pull off this “fundamental transformation.”
The suburbs are the swing constituency in our national elections. If suburban voters knew what the Democrats had in store for them, they’d run screaming in the other direction. Unfortunately, Republicans have been too clueless or timid to make an issue of the Democrats’ anti-suburban plans. It’s time to tell voters the truth.
I’ve been studying Joe Biden’s housing plans, and what I’ve seen is both surprising and frightening. I expected that a President Biden would enforce the Obama administration’s radical AFFH (Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing) regulation to the hilt. That is exactly what Biden promises to do. By itself, that would be more than enough to end America’s suburbs as we’ve known them, as I’ve explained repeatedly here at NRO.
What surprises me is that Biden has actually promised to go much further than AFFH. Biden has embraced Cory Booker’s strategy for ending single-family zoning in the suburbs and creating what you might call “little downtowns” in the suburbs. Combine the Obama-Biden administration’s radical AFFH regulation with Booker’s new strategy, and I don’t see how the suburbs can retain their ability to govern themselves. It will mean the end of local control, the end of a style of living that many people prefer to the city, and therefore the end of meaningful choice in how Americans can live. Shouldn’t voters know that this is what’s at stake in the election?
It is no exaggeration to say that progressive urbanists have long dreamed of abolishing the suburbs. (In fact, I’ve explained it all in a book.) Initially, these anti-suburban radicals wanted large cities to simply annex their surrounding suburbs, like cities did in the 19th century. That way a big city could fatten up its tax base. Once progressives discovered it had since become illegal for a city to annex its surrounding suburbs without voter consent, they cooked up a strategy that would amount to the same thing.
This de facto annexation strategy had three parts: (1) use a kind of quota system to force “economic integration” on the suburbs, pushing urban residents outside of the city; (2) close down suburban growth by regulating development, restricting automobile use, and limiting highway growth and repair, thus forcing would-be suburbanites back to the city; (3) use state and federal laws to force suburbs to redistribute tax revenue to poorer cities in their greater metropolitan region. If you force urbanites into suburbs, force suburbanites back into cities, and redistribute suburban tax revenue, then presto! You have effectively abolished the suburbs.
Obama’s radical AFFH regulation puts every part of progressives’ “abolish the suburbs” strategy into effect (as I explain in detail here). Once Biden starts to enforce AFFH the way Obama’s administration originally meant it to work, it will be as if America’s suburbs had been swallowed up by the cities they surround. They will lose control of their own zoning and development, they will be pressured into a kind of de facto regional-revenue redistribution, and they will even be forced to start building high-density low-income housing. The latter, of course, will require the elimination of single-family zoning. With that, the basic character of the suburbs will disappear. At the very moment when the pandemic has made people rethink the advantages of dense urban living, the choice of an alternative will be taken away.
That’s all bad enough. But on top of AFFH, Biden now plans to use Cory Booker’s strategy for attacking suburban zoning. AFFH works by holding HUD’s Community Development Block Grants hostage to federal-planning demands. Suburbs won’t be able to get the millions of dollars they’re used to in HUD grants unless they eliminate single-family zoning and densify their business districts. AFFH also forces HUD-grant recipients to sign pledges to “affirmatively further fair housing.” Those pledges could get suburbs sued by civil-rights groups, or by the feds, if they don’t get rid of single-family zoning. The only defense suburbs have against this two-pronged attack is to refuse HUD grants. True, that will effectively redistribute huge amounts of suburban money to cities, but if they give up their HUD grants at least the suburbs will be free of federal control.
The Booker approach — now endorsed by Biden — may block even this way out. Booker wants to hold suburban zoning hostage not only to HUD grants, but to the federal transportation grants used by states to build and repair highways. It may be next to impossible for suburbs to opt out of those state-run highway repairs. Otherwise, suburban roads will deteriorate and suburban access to major arteries will be blocked. AFFH plus the Booker plan will leave America’s suburbs with no alternative but to eliminate their single-family zoning and turn over their planning to the feds. Slowly but surely, suburbs will become helpless satellites of the cities they surround, exactly as progressive urbanists intend.
If America’s suburban voters understood that all this is what Biden and the Democrats have in store for them, it could easily swing the election. That means President Trump now has another “abolish” to add to his list: Joe Biden and the Dems want to abolish America’s suburbs.
There’s just one hitch. Incredibly, although AFFH is arguably Obama’s most radical initiative, Ben Carson’s HUD has still not gotten rid of it. Instead, Carson suspended enforcement of the rule early on and then tinkered around for three years trying to come up with a replacement. What Carson has developed so far is something you might call “AFFH lite.” While this possible replacement removes many of the regulation’s excesses, Carson has so far retained the most egregious feature of AFFH. He still wants to use HUD money to gut suburban single-family zoning. How Carson can even think about taking this stance in the face of President Trump’s explicit directive to reduce and remove excessive federal regulation is a mystery.
It will be very tough for President Trump to make a political issue out of Biden’s housing plans so long as his own cabinet secretary is talking about killing suburban single-family zoning with AFFH. I think Carson’s wobbling on AFFH explains a lot about why Democrats have become so bold with their plans to undo suburban zoning. If even the Trump administration goes along with federal attacks on suburban zoning, the Dems figure they’ve got political cover. Time was when Obama administration officials would turn somersaults to deny that they were going to control suburban-zoning decisions, even when it was obvious that this was their plan. Now, Biden and Booker are remarkably open about their desire to densify the suburbs and get rid of single-family zoning.
The Democrat war on the suburbs is a golden gift to President Trump, but he won’t be able to make use of it until he throws over Carson’s AFFH lite and completely guts Obama’s wildly radical regulation. Then Tump can go to town on Biden and the Dems for making war on the suburbs.
If there were ever proof that Biden has shed his centrism and been taken over by the Left, this is it. Biden got the nomination by declining to endorse the most radical plans of his rivals. But take a look at Biden’s housing plans and it’s clear that he is now a wholly owned subsidiary of the Left. Progressive urbanists’ long-cherished dream of abolishing the suburbs is now within reach. With AFFH restored to its original form by a President Biden, enforced to the hilt, and turbo-charged by the Booker strategy, suburbs as we know them will pass from the scene.
With them will disappear the principle of local control that has been the key to American exceptionalism from the start. Since the Pilgrims first landed, our story has been of a people who chose how and where to live, and who governed themselves when they got there. Self-government in a layered federalist system allowing for local control right down to the township is what made America great. If Biden and the Democrats win, that key to our greatness could easily go by the boards.
Stanley Kurtz is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.