Bogus Fact Checks on Suburban Zoning Issue

A row of Victorian homes known locally as the “Painted Ladies” glow in the early evening sun following a rain shower in San Francisco, California. (Robert Galbraith /Reuters)

Although a small army of media fact-checkers claim otherwise, Joe Biden wants to end single-family zoning in America’s suburbs. On the first night Republican National Convention, Patricia McClosky said that Joe Biden and the radicals now running the Democratic Party “want to abolish the suburbs altogether by ending single-family home zoning.” McCloskey’s claim set off a frenzy of media fact-checks, all insisting that it just isn’t so. Nonetheless, McCloskey had it right.

The most egregiously mistaken McCloskey fact check was also the most widely disseminated. Thomas Beaumont’s fact check for the Associated Press was, like many other AP stories, reposted and reprinted at scores of local news outlets. Yet this supposed fact check was utterly confused and thoroughly mistaken. According to Beaumont, “Biden does not propose banishing single-family homes.” Or again, “[Biden] does not support requiring municipalities to refrain from building single-family homes as a condition for getting money from HUD — the heart of the distorted claims by Trump and the McCloskeys.”

The distorted claim here is Beaumont’s, who to all appearances has no idea what “ending single-family home zoning” actually means. It has nothing to do with “banishing single-family homes.” When a given location is zoned for single-family homes, it means that only detached, single-family homes can be built in that area. In other words, single-family zoning prevents apartment complexes or other relatively dense forms of housing from being built in residential neighborhoods reserved for single-family homes with yards. So “ending single-family zoning” means, not banishing single-family homes, but permitting the construction of apartment buildings and other dense forms of development in areas previously set aside for single-family home construction only.

Again, contra Beaumont and AP, “ending single-family zoning” has nothing to do with “requiring municipalities to refrain from building single-family homes as a condition of getting money from HUD.” On the contrary, “ending single-family zoning” means allowing apartments complexes to be built in neighborhoods already filled with single-family homes with yards (and where new single-family homes with yards may be added as well). In other words, Beaumont and AP have published a “fact check” that doesn’t even comprehend the meaning of the claim it purports to be investigating. This comical error has been published and republished in scores of local news outlets, apparently so far without correction.

The rest of the media fact checks do seem to grasp what single-family zoning means, but wrongly deny that Biden wants to get rid of it. Yet Biden’s own housing plan says that he wants to “eliminate local and state housing regulations that perpetuate discrimination.” Biden then identifies “exclusionary zoning” as the kind of housing regulation he wants to “eliminate.” Here, “exclusionary zoning” is Biden’s term for what is more commonly called “single-family zoning.”

We know this because Biden’s own plan goes on to promise that he will eliminate “exclusionary zoning” by passing the HOME Act of 2019, co-sponsored by Senator Cory Booker and House majority whip James Clyburn. The HOME Act of 2019 requires any municipality receiving Community Development Block Grants from HUD, or benefiting from federal Surface Transportation Grants for highway construction and repair, to submit a plan to “reduce barriers” to high-density low-income housing. The plan must choose from a menu of items, most of which in some way limit or eliminate single-family zoning. True, the HOME Act also offers a few non-zoning-related options as acceptable ways to qualify for federal grants (e.g. forcing landlords to accept Section 8 housing vouchers as rent payments). For the most part, however, Booker-Clyburn ties the receipt of federal grants to the limitation or elimination of traditional single-family zoning. This is highly coercive because few or no suburban municipalities can afford to cut themselves off from federally assisted road repairs.

In short, Biden’s own housing plan pledges to use Booker–Clyburn to “eliminate” “exclusionary zoning,” which the HOME Act of 2019 makes clear is another way of referring to “single-family zoning.” In fact, Cory Booker’s press release for the HOME Act gives the following examples of the kind of “exclusionary zoning laws” the law will combat: 1) “local ordinances that ban apartment buildings from certain residential areas;” 2) local ordinances that “set a minimum lot size for a single-family home.” It is clear that the Booker–Clyburn HOME Act is designed to undo single-family zoning, and that Biden has pledged to support it. Yet one media fact check after another denies that either Biden or the Democrats in any way intend to abolish single-family zoning.

When not denying the obvious truth about Biden’s anti-suburban policies in order to deprive President Trump of a powerful campaign issue, the mainstream press actually touts Democratic plans to abolish single-family zoning. Consider the opening of this 2019 New York Times article, “Cities Start to Question an American Ideal: A House with a Yard on Every Lot” (published before President Trump made zoning a campaign issue):

Single-family zoning is practically gospel in America, embraced by homeowners and local governments to protect neighborhoods of tidy houses from denser development nearby. But a number of officials across the country are starting to make seemingly heretical moves. The Oregon legislature this month will consider a law that would end zoning exclusively for single-family homes in most of the state. California lawmakers have drafted a bill that would effectively do the same. In December Minneapolis City Council voted to end single-family zoning citywide. The Democratic presidential candidates Elizabeth Warren and Cory Booker and Julian Castro have taken up the cause too.

The Times here makes it clear here that several Democrat-controlled states and localities, as well as several Democratic presidential candidates, have “taken up the cause” of ending single-family zoning, including Cory Booker (whose plan to do so has now been incorporated into Biden’s platform).

In a 2019 article, also published before President Trump made Democratic zoning plans an issue, the left-leaning urbanist website Curbed says that Cory Booker’s housing plan attempts “to coerce local governments into zoning reforms by . . . withholding money from federal housing and transportation grants.” While Curbed wonders whether tying zoning reform to federal dollars will work, given formal local control over zoning laws, it concludes that Booker’s plan is more likely to succeed than other Democratic proposals, chiefly because “practically every community in the country depends on federal money for transportation projects.”

We’ve seen that Biden himself promises to “eliminate . . . exclusionary zoning” (a term that clearly refers to “single-family zoning,”) via Booker–Clyburn’s coercive HOME Act of 2019, a bill which was openly described by the New York Times prior to President Trump making zoning into a campaign issue as part of a Democratic Party-led cavalcade of proposals to end single-family zoning.

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, 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 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.

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