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Adam Zyglis Cartoon

Quietly creeping into our lives is a regulatory framework from the Obama Administration dubbed “regionalism”. That might sound innocuous enough. On one level, we can think of regionalism as a pooling of resources in order to accomplish things that would be difficult at more fragmented levels, such as small municipalities. That could take various forms, such as annexation of an adjacent municipality or the formation of regional districts tasked with providing services such as special schools, transportation, utilities, or certain law enforcement functions. Obviously, any of these  steps involves a loss of local control — for someone.

Regionalism as redefined by the Obama regime is more radical and involves not just other regional jurisdictions, but the federal government. The key elements of one proposed rule are federal data collection, federal diversity objectives and federal purse strings. The new rule, to be issued by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), is described in a WaPo opinion piece by Marc A. Thiessen, “Obama wants to reengineer your neighborhood“:

Under Obama’s proposed rule, the federal government will collect massive amounts of data on the racial, ethnic and socioeconomic makeup of thousands of local communities, looking for signs of ‘disparities by race, color, religion, sex, familial status, national origin, or disability in access to community assets.’ Then the government will target communities with results it doesn’t like and use billions of dollars in federal grant money to bribe or blackmail them into changing their zoning and housing policies.

The clause “...in access to community assets” is subject to broad interpretation. As Thiessen notes later, housing and lending discrimination are already prohibited on all of the bases listed above. However, this rule has socioeconomic implications apart from the protected classes. The rule may well hold a community responsible for the aggregate disparate impact of what HUD calls “… the operation of housing markets, [and] investment choices by holders of capital.” The upshot is that a community could be penalized if HUD determines that private builders, developers and investors offer insufficient units of affordable housing within its borders.

By what standard will any such disparate impact be judged? A group’s non-representation within the borders of a subject community would frequently obviate the rule. Clearly, the reference area for any single community would have to encompass a larger regional geography, but that is likely to be decided by federal regulators. The scheme will become very arbitrary if regulators have much flexibility on a case-by-case basis.

I have been a critic of zoning laws and other local building restrictions that artificially restrict the supply of housing and inflate housing costs. It is possible that the HUD rule would weaken such restrictions, but it is more likely that local communities would leave those rules largely intact and instead carve out affordable housing “districts”. They might even find it convenient to do so via eminent domain. In any case, I do not support the kind of federal oversight and control of local communities envisioned by the Obama Administration.

Obama regionalism is much broader than the new HUD rule. Stanley Kurtz warned of this encroachment two years ago in “Regionalism: Obama’s Quiet Anti-Suburban Revolution“, and in an earlier book on the threat of Obama regionalism to American suburbs. The new HUD rule:

… is part of a broader suite of initiatives designed to block suburban development, press Americans into hyper-dense cities, and force us out of our cars. Government-mandated ethnic and racial diversification plays a role in this scheme, yet the broader goal is forced ‘economic integration.’ The ultimate vision is to make all neighborhoods more or less alike, turning traditional cities into ultra-dense Manhattans, while making suburbs look more like cities do now. In this centrally-planned utopia, steadily increasing numbers will live cheek-by-jowl in ‘stack and pack’ high-rises close to public transportation, while automobiles fall into relative disuse.

Much of Kurtz’s focus is on the San Francisco region’s “Plan Bay Area”. Under the guise of “sustainable development”, this initiative limits new development in the Bay Area, restricts new single-family home construction, and shoe-horns new housing and business expansion into districts near transportation hubs. Kurtz also discusses a 2012 award to Plan Bay Area of a “Sustainable Communities Grant” by the Obama Administration. The rules surrounding the use of such grants contribute to the further politicization of local development.

Wendell Cox elaborates on Kurtz’s book and the threat of regionalism to suburban life in a New Geography article entitled “Spreading the Fiscal Irresponsibility“. Obama’s regionalism entails greater local dependence on federal funds and an extreme loss of local control. Cox emphasizes the negative implications of that loss for fiscal restraint at local levels.

A more recent example of regionalism in action is in Minneapolis and St. Paul, MN, where a 30-year master plan called “Thrive MSP 2040” has been promulgated by a regional planning council. Katherine Kersten weighs in on the plan in the Wall Street Journal in “Turning the Twin Cities Into Sim City” (or you may need to use this Google search to get past the pay wall):

While minority residents have been streaming into the Twin Cities’ suburbs for the past 15 years, the Met Council wants to make sure there is a proper race-and-income mix in each. Thus it recently mapped every census tract in the 2,800 square-mile, seven-county region by race, ethnicity and income. The purpose was to identify ‘racially concentrated areas of poverty’ and ‘high opportunity clusters.’ The next step is for the council to lay out what the region’s 186 municipalities must do to disperse poverty throughout the metro area.

HUD and HUD grant money is assisting in this effort. To quote Kersten, HUD

“… says that mapping is intended, in part, to identify suburban land-use and zoning practices that allegedly deny opportunity and create ‘barriers’ for low-income and minority people.

The Thrive plan also calls for “Transit-oriented development” and evaluation of “all future development policies through the ‘lens’ of climate change.” From Kersten’s closing paragraph:

“… Twin Cities residents will likely realize that Thrive MSP 2040’s centralized decision-making and Orwellian appeals to ‘equity’ and ‘sustainability’ are a serious threat to their democratic traditions of individual liberty and self-government. Let’s hope that realization comes sooner rather than later.