Urban policy conversations are largely focused on local policy, though we at City Observatory have occasionally argued that more attention ought to be paid to state and federal policy.

We haven’t had much to say about the presidential candidates themselves this year, but one exercise that’s worth paying a bit of attention to is the writing of each major party’s official policy platforms. These are documents without any legislative power, of course—but they do indicate the state of the public debate within each of the major parties. Moreover, as FiveThirtyEight argues, there’s evidence that what gets put in the platform predicts real policy tomorrow.

So today, we’ll look at what the platforms say about housing. Later, we’ll focus on transportation.

Both the Republican and Democratic platforms focus on homeownership in their (brief) forays into housing. “Homeownership expands personal liberty, builds communities, and helps Americans create wealth,” says the Republican platform; the Democratic one has no such paean but makes increasing access to homeownership the subject of one of its four paragraphs on housing. (Regular readers will know we are skeptical.)

Perhaps predictably, the Republican platform calls for “scal[ing] back the federal role in the housing market,” although there are few details about exactly what this means. It appears to be targeted mainly at programs meant to expand credit to low-income households to buy homes, which the platform blames for the housing crisis of the 2000s. (Many economists do not agree.) They also mention ending Federal Housing Administration mortgage support for “high-income individuals” and ending requirements for federally-insured banks to “satisfy lending quotas to specific groups,” presumably a reference to the Community Reinvestment Act, which is meant to counteract the effects of years of “redlining” by guaranteeing credit access to communities with large numbers of black, Latino, and low-income residents.

Credit: City of Jacksonville
Credit: City of Jacksonville


The Democratic platform’s section on housing is much shorter even than the Republicans’. About half of it is dedicated to improving housing affordability; it promises to “substantially increase funding” for the National Housing Trust Fund, and “provide more federal resources to the people struggling most with affordable housing,” though the mechanism is vague. (In case you guys are looking for one, you could try our automatic tax credit idea!) Vouchers, public housing, and anti-homelessness programs are mentioned in the most perfunctory possible way, with promises of more funding.

Perhaps the most interesting, and surprising, issue is zoning. The Republican platform is the only one to explicitly use the word—a change from 2012, when it did not appear. “The current Administration is trying to seize control of the zoning process through its Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing regulation,” it says. “It threatens to undermine zoning laws in order to socially engineer every community in the country.” This is disappointing inasmuch as some conservatives have argued that the generally anti-regulation party might be an ally in the fight against sprawl-inducing, segregation-promoting local development rules. But it’s also unsurprising inasmuch as many local Republican officials and writers have been enthusiastic defenders of the hyper-regulation of property rights when it comes to urban space.

Meanwhile, the Democratic platform doesn’t include the word “zoning,” but it does say that the party will attempt to “eas[e] local barriers to building new affordable rental housing developments in areas of economic opportunity.” Given the Democratic administration’s ongoing fight with Westchester County, New York, that seems like a clear reference to battling low-density zoning regulations that make below-market housing difficult or impossible to construct in certain areas—and a recognition of the importance of economic integration to opportunity. But it appears to leave out the growing consensus among researchers from across the political spectrum that building market-rate housing is also a key part of any affordability strategy.

Platforms are ultimately political documents, and this year, that’s especially the case as it relates to housing policies. While we’d like to believe that the platforms would clearly spell out the differences between the two parties, and give voters a clear choice of direction. The 2008 campaign, in part, hinged on different approaches to health care reform and helped provide President Obama with a mandate that led to the enactment of the Affordable Care Act. The smaller bore and more muted discussions presented here don’t suggest that either party has much interest in making the election hinge on housing issues, or in building a strong public consensus for bold policy action in this area.