White House Embraces Federal Zoning Reform Provision

A program that would enable planners to modernize development codes, overhaul exclusionary zoning, and engage with the community on proposed reforms has reached a critical milestone.

Federal Support for Inclusive Zoning

Unlocking Possibilities — based on the APA-endorsed Housing Supply and Affordability Act — is officially part of President Biden's pared-down Build Back Better framework which could see action as soon as this weekend. Its inclusion in the $1.75 billion package is the direct result of planners' advocacy without which would have resulted in the provision being cut.

The revised Build Back Better framework would make the largest direct investment in housing planning in decades.

In recent days, the White House has used its bully pulpit to bring greater attention to Unlocking Possibilities and the rare opportunity to provide federal funding, technical assistance, and support for communities and states working hard to rethink outdated zoning and codes.

"The Build Back Better Framework also includes the first-ever federal competitive grant program to award flexible and attractive funding to jurisdictions that take concrete steps to eliminate needless barriers to producing affordable housing," said Brian Deese, Director of the National Economic Council at a briefing for key stakeholders. "That's a recognition by our Administration that inclusionary zoning is at the core of boosting supply and bringing down costs."

Invest in Planning For Results

This was not the only recognition of planning's importance in addressing supply-side challenges in housing markets.

Jeana Dunlap, strategic adviser, and 2019 Harvard Loew Fellow, pointed to planning as critical for operationalizing equity and inclusion. She credited the city's planning staff and commission for taking on reform efforts that are already leading to action on zoning, including an equity review of the city's land use development code and simplifying the accessory dwelling unit development process.

In a panel discussion focused on state actions to encourage zoning reform at the local level, Oregon House Speaker Tina Kotek urged state leaders to invest in planning if they want local results.

"You have to be a strong partner, and that means putting some money on the table and not just telling them [communities] what to do."

The Road Ahead

There is a major push underway by the White House and House and Senate Democrats to wrap up work on the Build Back Better Act before Thanksgiving. While Unlocking Possibilities is secure in the bill for now, nothing is final until Congress sends the package to President Biden's desk for his signature. Until then, planners must remain engaged and alert to attempts to pull out dedicated support for planning.

Emily Pasi is APA's senior public affairs manager.

November 4, 2021

By Emily Pasi