The Trump Administration Just Saved the American Suburb | Opinion

Even the most harmless, innocuous-sounding words can be twisted by the federal bureaucracy to spawn sweeping ideological crusades and bring about massive upheavals in American society.

Four such words are "affirmatively furthering fair housing"—a seemingly innocent phrase about local governments' duties under the 1968 Fair Housing Act, the main federal law that prohibits racial and other forms of discrimination in rentals and home sales. On the surface, these words seem to mandate merely that towns must do what they can to prevent housing discrimination in their communities. For decades, that is how the phrase was interpreted.

In the 1990s, however, bureaucrats in the Clinton administration discovered they could turn those four words into a cudgel to extract concessions from the thousands of counties, towns and cities that receive funding from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Those communities now had to submit "analyses of impediments" examining their race-neutral policies' impact on racial housing patterns.

Then, in 2009, the Obama-Biden administration sided with a "fair housing advocacy organization" that was suing Westchester County, New York. The organization accused the county of making "false claims" that it had done everything possible to "affirmatively further fair housing" because it did not re-examine existing, race-neutral zoning laws in search of hidden racial discrimination. Up against the weight of the federal government, the county prudently settled the case, agreeing to change its zoning laws and build 750 public housing units at a taxpayer cost of $51 million—nearly as much money as the county had ever received from HUD in the first place.

That was not, however, the end of the matter. Armed with the settlement, the Obama-Biden HUD turned Clinton's "Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing" (AFFH) cudgel into a thermonuclear bomb to drop on the suburbs.

Despite eight separate "analyses of impediments" that all found no discrimination at all in Westchester County's zoning laws, bureaucrats in Washington nonetheless claimed the right to overturn some of the most fundamental, character-defining ordinances of American communities. Even basic, quarter-acre, single-family zoning suddenly fell into the federal agency's tentacles.

The new rules, promulgated as part of a "grand experiment" by Obama's HUD, would compel suburban landlords to go to cities and recruit Section 8 recipients, then force local taxpayers to pay for thousands of units of high-rise public housing as close as possible to the "community assets" that make their towns desirable—such as high-performing schools, public parks and shopping centers. All of this would be done in defiance of any local zoning regulations, of course.

How could the Obama-Biden administration possibly justify this extraordinary and unprecedented federal takeover of suburban communities?

It was shockingly simple. Under the rules Obama and Biden eventually sought to impose on the entire country, simply having more white and/or more affluent residents per capita than the metropolitan area, as a whole, was enough to brand any town's zoning laws and housing regulations as prima facie evidence of racial discrimination. That, in turn, exposed such towns not only to federal interference and tax hikes to pay for the relocations, but also exposed them to massive treble-damage lawsuits that line the pockets of "fair housing organizations" with local residents' tax dollars.

In Westchester County between 2009 and 2013, HUD used these rules to escalate its demands from the original 750 housing units and $51 million to a whopping 10,760 units, which Westchester's county executive estimated could cost up to $1 billion. Thanks to bureaucratic interpretation of four little words in a 1968 law, suburbanites would now have to endure a massive property tax hike to pay for thousands of low-income residents to be moved from New York City to public housing projects built in contravention of their laws and next to their most cherished "community assets."

HUD Secretary Ben Carson
HUD Secretary Ben Carson Astrid Riecken - Pool/Getty Images

On the eve of the 2016 presidential election, the Obama-Biden administration was in the process of rolling out the same "grand experiment" on a national scale. Only President Trump's victory prevented a deluge of crushing lawsuits against suburban counties.

In 2018, HUD Secretary Ben Carson put this outrageous federal overreach on hold, suspending the war against the suburbs launched by the Obama-Biden administration in much the same way that the Trump administration ended the Obama-Biden "war on coal." HUD carefully considered the administrative procedure requirements for changing the rule and assembled a rock-solid record to support the decision, allowing President Trump to finally announce the official end of the policy.

Under the final rule unveiled Thursday, not only is the "grand experiment" we saw in Westchester County over, but the Bill Clinton-constructed edifice on which it was built is swept away. No longer will federal bureaucrats in Washington be able to impose their ideologically-driven development priorities on localities by administrative fiat.

This is a massive victory for Americans' constitutional rights to local control and self-government, as well as a recognition that the federal government's duty to prevent discrimination in housing does not supersede its obligation to protect the rights of millions of Americans who abide by race-neutral zoning laws to create beautiful, vibrant, family-friendly suburban communities.

But we are not yet completely out of the woods, unfortunately. The presumptive Democratic Party presidential nominee is a man who oversaw the creation of these toxic AFFH rules in the first place: former Vice President Joe Biden. This time around, Biden has not only doubled down on his support for the bad policies of the past, but has actually pledged to go much further, endorsing Senator Cory Booker's (D-NJ) plan to expand the "grand experiment" even further by subjecting towns to federal control even if they don't receive HUD grants.

Communities all over the country had already decided to refuse the deal with the devil that the Obama administration demanded under AFFH by rejecting HUD money. Biden's solution is to make those suburbs an offer they can't refuse and demand AFFH-like concessions from communities only because they accept federal highway money.

If you live in a typical American suburb or small town, it's very likely that your area is in Biden's crosshairs. Your property taxes will have to be raised in order to build high-rise public housing, in defiance of local zoning laws, because your community is "too affluent."

The only way to stop four little words from being twisted into a bigger bludgeon to punish the suburbs is with a few words that can't be twisted at all: re-elect President Trump.

Boris Epshteyn is the strategic advisor for coalitions on the Trump 2020 campaign and served in the White House as special assistant to the president and assistant communications director for surrogate operations.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.