Ben Carson: Regulatory barriers block affordable housing solutions

U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson said tackling the nation’s affordable housing crisis will take ingenuity and removal of barriers that restrict construction in cities across the nation.

Carson, in Atlanta on Tuesday for an affordable housing conference, said strict zoning and other regulatory burdens drive up the cost of construction and make it more difficult to create new housing. Increased development costs force rents and home prices higher, further squeezing the pocketbooks of many Americans.

Affordability has emerged as a pressing issue in metro Atlanta and cities across the nation. Construction of new single-family homes and apartments hasn’t kept pace with demand, industry groups say, and a lot of new development targets wealthy residents. Housing costs also have outpaced gains in workers’ wages.

Carson said the nation needs to embrace new building techniques, such as modular construction and tiny houses. And it needs to incentivize development and relax land-use restrictions to help overcome the housing crunch.

“Those are huge barriers,” Carson said. “When you look at some of the areas of the country where homelessness is the greatest, you see the greatest number of zoning restrictions.”

Many cities and counties, including Atlanta, devote the largest proportion of their residentially zoned property to single-family, detached dwellings. HUD does not have statutory authority to change zoning, but Carson said the agency can work with local governments to loosen zoning.

In June, Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms unveiled a citywide affordable housing plan. The $1 billion plan — half of which she has pledged will come from private sources — proposes using existing public dollars and land as an incentive to attract private sector investment, as well as changes in zoning.

Bottoms’ plan also calls for expediting redevelopment of vacant and blighted properties and the creation of a housing innovation lab. But the proposal when announced did not include legislation.

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The Atlanta Housing Authority, mired in leadership and litigation struggles, largely has been sidelined from new affordable housing development for the past decade.

Carson said Atlanta created a national model for mixed-income housing development in the 1990s, pointing to the East Lake community, a former housing project that’s now a celebrated mixed-income community with a high-performing charter school system.

“Can it be done in Atlanta? Atlanta is one of the best examples,” Carson said. “They’ve fallen away, but there’s no reason they can’t come back.”

Dan Immergluck, an affordable housing expert and a professor at the Urban Studies Institute at Georgia State University, said the last three administrations also attempted to remove regulatory burdens to promote affordable housing with limited results.

“This regulatory approach is nothing new,” he said.

One approach Carson is taking to regulation, a rewriting of a federal housing rule known as “disparate impact,” could limit HUD’s ability to influence local zoning, Immergluck said.

An Obama-era “disparate impact” rule banned discrimination even when the language of a policy is neutral. Such a rule can be used to challenge zoning if it disproportionately affects minorities, Immergluck said.

“If they can show zoning has disproportionate impact to protected classes, they can, and in places they have, argued disparate impact on people of color,” Immergluck said.

Carson said the proposed new rule, which could be released soon, is intended to relieve a bottleneck that has slowed new development of affordable housing.