Yet in assessing Patricia McCloskey’s claim that Biden and many Democrats favor “ending single-family home zoning,” CNN says, “This is false. Democrats are not seeking to . . . end single family home zoning”; Politifact says, “That’s not true”; Talking Points Memo says McCloskey is making a “false claim”; Axios says, “Democrats have no plans to end single-family home zoning”; NBC News says that McCloskey’s claims are “all false”; and Forbes calls McCloskey’s claim about zoning “one of the biggest falsehoods of the first night of the Republican convention.”
How is it possible that nearly every media fact check could deny that Biden has pledged to eliminate single-family zoning, when Biden’s own housing plan openly promises to “eliminate . . . exclusionary zoning” (a term which clearly refers single-family zoning) via the coercive Booker plan? Well, for starters, not a single one of the fact checks described above so much as mentions Biden’s support for Booker–Clyburn’s HOME Act of 2019, much less Biden’s promise to “eliminate . . . exclusionary zoning.” Either these supposed fact-checkers never even bothered to consult Biden’s publicly available housing plan, or they did consult it and suppressed key information. (I suspect we’re seeing negligence rather than misrepresentation.)
The exception that proves the rule comes from FactCheck.org, which after a lengthy attempt to rebut McCloskey says the following in its very last sentence: “[Biden’s] plan also says he would sign legislation requiring states receiving certain federal block grants ‘to develop a strategy for inclusionary zoning.’” Yet FactCheck.org does nothing to explore and explain what this reference to Biden’s endorsement of Booker-Clyburn actually means. If it had delved into the matter, as we have here, it would have discovered that McCloskey’s claim was correct.
While all these fact checks ignore Biden’s endorsement of Booker–Clyburn’s 2019 HOME Act, they spend a great deal of time arguing that the Obama administration’s better-known Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing (AFFH) rule does not in fact abolish single-family zoning. In denying the claim that AFFH is a form of “forced rezoning,” the fact-checkers rely on testimony from Democratic politicians, or from housing experts sympathetic to AFFH.
One widely quoted and seemingly authoritative piece of evidence comes from Obama administration HUD secretary Julian Castro, who told the New York Times, “The federal government does not have the authority to dictate zoning decisions of local communities. That’s very explicit, that’s settled, and this rule (AFFH) in no way requires communities to make specific decisions about zoning.” Coming from a former HUD secretary, that certainly sounds definitive. Maybe the federal government doesn’t have the ability to force zoning changes on localities, after all.
Wait a minute. Didn’t we just see the New York Times touting the fact that, along with Cory Booker and other Democrats, presidential candidate Julian Castro had “taken up the cause” of ending single-family zoning? If Castro says presidents have no role in determining local zoning, isn’t that a contradiction?
You bet it is. Have a look at these planks from Democratic presidential candidate Julian Castro’s housing platform:
Establish federal guidelines on land use and zoning through a Presidential Commission on Zoning Reform, with input from government agencies that include the Departments of Housing and Urban Development, Transportation, Justice, and the Environmental Protection Agency, in addition to civil rights groups and representatives from state and local governments. Ensure guidelines are consistent with efforts to combat segregation in public schools and address practices like red-lining and exclusionary zoning.”
Reform local zoning practices by expanding the Community Development Block Grants (CDBG) and Rural Development programs by $2 billion a year. Require zoning reforms in communities that promote affordable, inclusive, and transit-oriented housing to be eligible for new funding and in prioritizing existing CDBG, Home Investment Partnership Programs, and transportation grant funding. Require an affirmative implementation of policies that further the purposes of the Fair Housing Act to address racial disparities in local zoning.”
So while several of fact checks rely on Castro to falsify Patricia McCloskey’s claim that Biden and the Democrats want to force rezoning on the suburbs, Castro himself promised during his own campaign for president that he would establish a set of federal guidelines on zoning and then impose them on localities by withholding HUD and Transportation grants (just like Booker, and now Biden, have promised to do). And that is why the New York Times lauded both Booker and Castro for their plans to end single family zoning — before President Trump made zoning into an issue, that is.
The Obama administration played this same deceptive game with its various plans to impose the federal government’s will on decisions that, strictly speaking, it had no business interfering in. Various provisions of federal law prohibit the Department of Education from endorsing, approving, or sanctioning K–12 curricula, for example. Yet the Obama Department of Education managed to impose Common Core on the vast majority of states by offering financial incentives to adopt it when states were financially strapped after the 2008 recession. DoE also pretended that Common Core involved only “standards,” not “curriculum,” to help disguise its legal end-run.
By the same token, then HUD Secretary Castro pretended that Obama’s AFFH did nothing to force zoning changes on localities, because he knew that HUD was barred by statute from controlling local zoning. HUD’s way of working around the law on local control of zoning went as follows. Instead of HUD saying to localities, “We order you to abolish your single-family zoning and build high-density low-income housing,” HUD says instead, “As a condition for receiving our grants, we order you to conduct an analysis of your housing needs and submit a plan for future development that we deem acceptable.” But of course, the only “voluntary” analyses and plans HUD will accept under Obama’s AFFH are those that lead to the abolition of single-family zoning laws and the construction of high-density low-income housing. (To see how the Obama–Biden system of federal zoning compulsion works out in practice, go here, here, here, and here.) True, a locality can maybe get away with proposing to make other changes instead, like eliminating a landlord’s right to refuse a tenant planning to pay rent with Section 8 housing vouchers. But that is supposed to be a decision controlled by local law as well. So AFFH is precisely a way of allowing the feds to impose decisions on localities using federal grants as leverage, even in areas where the feds do not have final legal authority. In fact, AFFH is more coercive than Obama’s imposition of Common Core, because it uses sticks instead of carrots, withholding grants instead of offering incentives.
While Castro condemns McCloskey as “shameful” and “deceitful,” the truth is, Castro is the one making deceptive claims about the lack of federal involvement in zoning, even as he himself has promulgated aggressive plans to assure federal control of zoning — and has even been lauded for doing so by the New York Times. The so-called fact-checkers ought to be exposing Castro’s deceptive statements instead of taking them at face value.
Perish the thought that any of these fact-checkers should go to a conservative housing expert or Republican office-holder who actually supports the president’s housing policies, for an alternative point of view. That used to be the press’s role, but no more. To call these alleged fact-checkers handmaidens of the Democratic Party is no exaggeration. When it comes to the issue of zoning and the suburbs, the media’s supposed fact-checkers are comprehensively wrong.
So the next time you hear some spokesman for the Trump campaign claim that Biden and the Democrats want to abolish single-family zoning — and along with that, the capacity of America’s suburbs for self-government — believe them.
Stanley Kurtz is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.