Biden urges federal role to lower housing costs
Report suggests changes in local zoning laws
By Jim Tankersley and Conor Dougherty, New York Times

Economists in the Biden administration are calling for more aggressive federal action to drive down costs for homebuyers and renters, taking aim at one of the biggest economic challenges facing President Biden as he runs for reelection.

The policy proposals in a White House report released Thursday include what could be an aggressive federal intervention in local politics, which often dictates where homes are built and who can occupy them. The administration is backing a plan to pressure cities and other localities to relax zoning restrictions that, in many cases, hinder affordable housing construction.

That recommendation is part of a new administration deep dive into a housing crisis, decades in the making, that is hindering the president’s chances for a second term. The proposals, included in the annual Economic Report of the President, could serve as a blueprint for a major housing push if Biden wins a second term.

The report includes a suite of moves meant to reduce the cost of renting or buying a home while encouraging local governments to change zoning laws to allow development of more affordable housing.

“It’s really hard to make a difference in this space, in this affordable housing space, without tackling land use regulations,’’ Jared Bernstein, the chair of the White House Council of Economic Advisers, said in an interview.

Bernstein added that administration officials believed many local leaders were encouraging a bigger federal role in zoning reform — which can help override objections from local groups that oppose development. “I feel like we’re kicking through more of an open door now than we ever have before,’’ he said.

The report is full of statistics illustrating why housing has become an acute source of stress for American families and an electoral liability for Biden.

The administration has acknowledged that it has limited power over local zoning rules, which tend to dictate the design and density of homes in particular neighborhoods. Most of the president’s recommendations for expanding supply involve using the federal budget as a carrot to encourage local governments to allow more building — including adding low-income housing and smaller starter homes.

Such policies are unlikely to be put into law this year, with an election ahead and Republicans in control of the House.

But the focus on housing and the endorsement of a comprehensive set of policies to increase its supply and affordability could serve as a blueprint for a potentially bipartisan effort on the issue if Biden wins reelection. It could also add momentum to a housing reform movement that is well underway in state legislatures around the country.

The report documents how, over the past decade, home prices have significantly outpaced wage growth for American families. That has pushed ownership out of reach for middle-income home shoppers and left lower-income renters on the brink of poverty.

A quarter of tenants — about 12 million households — now spend more than half their income on rent. Prices are so high that if a minimum-wage employee worked 45 hours a week for a month, a median rent would consume every dollar he or she made.

Behind all this, the report said, is a longstanding housing shortage. The lack of housing has become a rare point of agreement among Democratic and Republican lawmakers.

The shortage is the product of decades of failing to build enough homes, a trend that worsened after the 2008 financial crisis. It has been exacerbated by the rising cost of construction along with the many local zoning and land use rules that make housing harder and more expensive to build. These rules also limit what kinds of units can go where, for instance by making it illegal to build apartments in single-family neighborhoods.

The lack of affordable housing particularly hurts lower-income families and couples starting out. Millions of lower-cost apartments have essentially disappeared over the past decade, either through rising rents or by falling into disrepair.