In about-face, Carson backtracks on his push against neighborhood zoning

In 2019, Carson said single-family zoning unfairly drove up housing costs.

August 18, 2020, 5:09 AM

In Minneapolis, Housing Secretary Ben Carson last year cheered on the city council when it moved to eliminate single-family zoning -- the kind of government red-tape Carson said made housing too expensive and exacerbated the homelessness crisis.

Later in Atlanta to attend a housing conference, Carson said strict zoning rules drove up construction costs and made affordable housing options out of reach.

“When you look at some of the areas of the country where homelessness is the greatest, you see the greatest number of zoning restrictions,” he said, reported the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Now, in a stunning about-face, the conservative has embraced an idea recently pushed by his boss -- President Donald Trump -- that the federal government should defend single-family zoning in the nation’s sprawling suburbs because doing so otherwise would lead to crime.

President Donald Trump speaks to a crowd of supporters at Mankato Regional Airport, Aug. 17, 2020, in Mankato, Minn.
Evan Vucci/AP

In a joint op-ed in The Wall Street Journal on Sunday, the two leaders darkly warned voters that if Democrat Joe Biden wins the election that low-income residents will be allowed to move into the suburbs and they will become dens of “crime and chaos.” The statement was a mischaracterization of a Democratic push to encourage communities to address patterns of racial segregation in housing.

“Rather than rethink their destructive policies, the left wants to make sure there is no escape,” Carson and Trump wrote.

“The plan is to remake the suburbs in their image so they resemble the dysfunctional cities they now govern,” they added. “As usual, anyone who dares tell the truth about what the left is doing is smeared as a racist."

“We won’t allow this to happen,” they wrote.

The op-ed is in direct contrast to Carson’s own statements last year in which he said affordable housing would only be addressed by reducing regulation and educating people on the damage caused in a community by insisting on “not in my backyard.”

“The correlation seems very strong: The more zoning restrictions and regulations, the higher the prices and the more homeless people,” Carson said in 2019, according to the Minneapolis Star Tribune, arguing against protecting single-family zoning.

“You don’t want to see a situation where, ‘Oh, those are for low-income people’ and ‘These are for middle-income.’ You want to have a mixed neighborhood,” he told reporters in 2019.

When asked to explain why Carson changed his mind on single-family zoning, a spokesperson for the Department of Housing and Urban Development said the secretary “does not believe that unelected bureaucrats in Washington should be setting blanket, national policies on intimate local issues such as zoning laws. Each locality and community have their own unique challenges and needs, these are best met with policies crafted at the local level.”

Yet Sunday’s op-ed specifically calls out the decision by Minneapolis local officials to eliminate single-family zoning and says the Trump administration would defend suburban voters against this “ultraliberal view.”

“We won’t allow this to happen,” they wrote at one point.

The Democratic “platform calls for reimposing the Obama-Biden dystopian vision of building low-income housing units next to your suburban house,” Carson and Trump wrote.

At issue is what role the federal government should play to address decades of housing segregation that determines where Americans shop, go to school, access health care and even the pollution in their air.

President Barack Obama enacted a rule that tried to “affirmatively further” the goals of the 1968 Fair Housing Act by making federal money contingent upon a community's willingness to show it was trying to to reduce inequality through its regulations and permitting decisions.

The rule wasn't aimed at the suburbs specifically and was expected to be mostly focused on big cities like New York City, where segregation patterns are among the most stark in the nation.

Carson and other conservatives opposed the rule, which they said was too cumbersome.

But until this week Carson and Democrats seemed to be in agreement that single family zoning unfairly drove up the cost of housing for many Americans.

Nikitra Bailey, executive vice president for The Center for Responsible Lending, said that type of zoning is an extension of the racial covenants that guided the creation of the suburbs decades ago and kept out mostly black families, preventing them accumulating housing wealth on par with white families.

The suburbs “intentionally created opportunities for white families while holding back opportunities for families of color,” Bailey said.

“What we are really talking about is opportunity in our nation,” which is a non-partisan issue, she added.

Others say the latest push by Trump on housing is as much about race as it is about income and that Trump is trying to inspire fear among white voters much as he did ahead of the 2016 election when he spoke of an "invasion" of immigrants and called for a border wall.

"It is blatant and cynical fear-mongering, a cheap and harmful political ploy for votes,” tweeted Diane Yentel, president of the National Low Income Housing Coalition.