Of Agencies and Amendments

Following my recent blog on Obama’s Housing Toolkit, Michael Hamilton took exception with the question: “Who better to determine local needs than property owners and concerned citizens themselves?” and suggested that this type of local-centric thinking raises questions about the reach and influence of constitutional protections for property rights. 

But the Obama Toolkit does not propose protecting or amending constitutional rights. At the federal level, it suggests spending $300 million to modernize cities’ housing regulation, when the only modernization required is a reduction in zoning regulation. Theoretically, this reduction in regulation should cost nothing.

Although the language in the report is anything but explicit, given HUD’s historical preference for withholding funding from communities that fail to do the agency-approved urban policy action du jour, it’s not a stretch to suggest we could see a similar carrot-and-stick approach used by HUD in the granting of “Local Housing Policy Grants.” Actually, HUD is already punishing or rewarding municipalities this way, through the euphemistically-titled Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing, Community Development Block Grants, Home Investment Partnerships, Emergency Solutions Grants, and other programs.

But simply because this method is employed with regularity, or even with worthy aims, doesn’t mean that we have to favor it. This carrot-and-stick approach is, for one thing, usually unconstitutional. Sadly, an unconstitutional approach is unremarkable in the climate of complete rejection/ignorance of constitutional law in which we exist.

It isn’t that cities or even “concerned citizens” aren’t often inimical to reducing regulation; they are. Property values are bolstered by zoning regulation, giving citizens every incentive to support restrictive zoning. The question is whether we would like federal or state administrative agencies involved in policing this.

But if you remain unmoved on the merits of (un)constitutionality alone, HUD’s ability to effectively and impartially police local municipalities is unproven (see: HUD’s involvement in Westchester, NY). It’s not as if HUD goes after the real zoning or affordability problems (see: San Francisco, CA). In other words, this is just bad policy.

On the other hand, local governments should be prohibited from enacting many types of zoning regulations, and one way to do that is to use higher levels of government—state or federal—to help protect people against arbitrary deprivations of property rights. That’s actually more of a “bottoms up” philosophy, individuals asserting rights, than a top-down one, expanding federal or state agency policing powers.

So, again: is there anything that can be done by the federal or state government to reduce regulations? Probably not constitutionally via agency blackmail but yes, there are things that could be done that are not suggested in Obama’s Housing Toolkit.

The federal government could overturn Euclid v. Ambler, which legitimized zoning regulations via police powers to begin with, or any of the cases that have expanded zoning regulations following it.

The people could amend the Constitution to protect property owners from regulatory takings, though it’s not obvious this would be necessary: a casual reader of the Constitution has good reason to believe that the Fifth Amendment already covers this quite well when it states that “private property [shall not] be taken for public use, without just compensation.”[1] At the federal level, the Constitution really doesn’t need an addendum; it just needs adherents and adherence.

The same thing goes for states. Amending state constitutions to include language that forbids irrational local zoning regulation is fine, though that’s not what is proposed. Using the state equivalent of the Tax & Spend Clause to justify any and all state agency overreach, which is what we often see in practice, is not.

In summary, the federal government’s role is to preserve [property] rights; it is not to create new programs, new schemes, and new mechanisms for controlling cities to ensure that municipalities finally spawn the elusive urban utopia of planner’s fantasies. Property rights should be thought of as originating with the individual – yes, even with property owners who happen to be concerned citizens. Though there is much to be admired in the report overall, this does not seem to be the position of the Obama Housing Toolkit when it comes to federal or state oversight.


1. The takings clause is sometimes used to compensate citizens for full takings (e.g. eminent domain) and less often to protect citizens against regulatory takings (e.g. zoning regulation).