By Peter Dorfman
From the beginning of the 2019 push to urbanize Bloomington’s core neighborhoods via amendment of the Unified Development Ordinance (UDO), advocates for multi-plex rental housing have argued that the national Democratic Party backs them up in their push for densification. They haven’t abandoned that claim in 2020.
The city’s planning staff have cited the national-level Democratic leadership as ideological allies in their efforts to eliminate zoning restrictions on density. There’s an argument to be had about whether a singular, broad-brush policy designed for large cities and sprawling suburbs should be applied to small, idiosyncratic towns like Bloomington.
First, though, we should take a look at what the leadership of the Democratic Party really advocated in 2020 for achieving housing justice.
This is what the 2020 Democratic Platform actually said about Housing:
PUTTING HOMEOWNERSHIP IN REACH AND GUARANTEEING SAFE HOUSING FOR EVERY AMERICAN
Homeownership is at the center of the American Dream — and yet it has never been in reach for all. Decades of red-lining, rising income inequality, and predatory lending practices targeting low-income families and people of color have made homeownership all but impossible for millions of working families. Homeownership has long been central to building generational wealth, and expanding access to homeownership to those who have been unfairly excluded and 20 discriminated against is critical to closing the racial wealth gap. We have a nationwide shortage of affordable housing units, and tens of millions of Americans live in homes that pose risks to their health and safety. Homelessness has reached crisis proportions in a growing number of states, and housing costs that rise faster than wages have put the squeeze on renters in many of our biggest cities.
Housing in America should be stable, accessible, safe, healthy, energy efficient, and, above all, affordable. No one should have to spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing, so families have ample resources left to meet their other needs and save for retirement.
Democrats believe the government should take aggressive steps to increase the supply of housing, especially affordable housing, and address long-standing economic and racial inequities in our housing markets. We support innovative approaches to eliminating the racial wealth gap in America. Rehabilitating housing and expansion of housing owned by land trusts will increase the amount of housing available for secure homeownership. We will equalize access to affordable credit and improve access to down payment assistance to help families of color, low-income families, and rural buyers purchase homes. We will increase funding for assistance to first-time purchasers and homeowners to navigate the financing and servicing of their homes. We will create a new tax credit of up to $15,000 to help first-time homebuyers, and will make the tax credit refundable and advanceable, so buyers can get assistance at the time of purchase, instead of having to wait until they file their taxes.
Democrats will supercharge investment in the Housing Trust Fund to greatly expand the number of affordable, accessible housing units on the market. We will expand the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit to incentivize private-sector construction of affordable housing, and make sure urban, suburban, and rural areas all benefit. We will make energy efficiency upgrades for millions of low-income households, affordable housing units, and public housing units in metropolitan and rural areas to save families money on their energy bills and provide safe and healthy homes. And Democrats will leverage existing programs, including at USDA, to build more affordable, accessible housing and retrofit existing housing in rural areas. We will ensure all federally supported housing projects, from new builds to retrofits, include mandatory requirements for labor standards, accessibility, and civil rights protections.
Democrats are committed to ending homelessness in America. Democrats commit to providing Section 8 housing support for every eligible family, and will enact protections to keep landlords from discriminating against voucher recipients. We will increase investments in public housing to expand availability for the first time since the 1990s, and improve and upgrade existing public housing to ensure safe living conditions for residents, protecting tenants’ rights to return if extensive renovations are needed. Democrats support a housing-first approach to ending homelessness, because having a stable and safe place to live is essential to helping a person tackle any other challenges they may face, from mental illness to substance use disorders to post-traumatic stress disorder. We will act swiftly to end homelessness among veterans and will enact strong protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer youth, especially Black, Latino, and Native American LGBTQ+ youth, who too often find themselves on the streets.
Democrats will enact a new Homeowner and Renter Bill of Rights to protect families from abusive lenders and landlords. We will empower renters by working to establish a national tenant right to organize, and support outreach and education to help tenants advocate to preserve and expand affordable housing. And Democrats will provide legal support to fight wrongful evictions.
America’s history of using public policy and private lending restrictions to close neighborhoods off to Black families and other people of color and strip equity from their communities is long, painful, and unresolved to this day. The Trump Administration has made matters worse by gutting fair lending and fair housing protections for homeowners. Democrats will vigorously enforce the Fair Housing Act, the Home Mortgage Disclosure Act, the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule, and the disparate impact standard, and hold lenders accountable for discriminatory practices. We will also ensure that federal housing programs are better designed to affirmatively further fair housing. We will use the federal government to enforce settlements against discriminatory lenders, and require communities to proactively review housing patterns and remedy local policies that have a discriminatory effect. We will work to ensure that residential property and mortgage ownership records are publicly available and easily accessible, so that homeowners can always know who services their mortgage and who truly owns their debt. Democrats will give local elected officials tools and resources to combat gentrification, penalize predatory lending practices, and maintain homeownership, including exploring targeted rental relief when exorbitant rent increases force long-term residents from their communities and tackling persistent racial bias in appraisals that contributes to the racial wealth gap.
That’s it: The entire platform as it applies to housing.
Notice the continual reinforcement of homeownership as a vital interest for Americans. The most crucial risk that upzoning represents for Bloomington is the likely loss of affordable homeownership opportunity as the older, small-lot, small-footprint houses that are still within reach of first-time home-buyers are snapped up by investors who view these properties not as homes but as multi-unit rental income generators. Once those homeownership opportunities are gone, they’re gone forever.
There is no support in this text for imposing dense rental housing on single family neighborhoods where homeownership is still within reach (even if many underpaid Bloomingtonians have doubts about ever achieving it).
The reference to redlining and discriminatory lending rules to segregate neighborhoods is in the Platform, but the term “zoning” doesn’t occur anywhere in the Platform.
The core neighborhoods grew up organically, without covenants. Bloomington’s planners evidently need reminding that the core neighborhoods — the main targets for upzoning — include areas like the Near West Side which were the only neighborhoods where, even in the years when many of the city’s subdivisions were explicitly segregated by covenant, a Black family could get a mortgage.
Is there support at the national level for sweeping away single family zoning laws from coast to coast? In one piece of legislation, yes: The so-called YIMBY Act of 2019 which, while it had Democratic co-sponsors, was written by our own Republican Rep. Trey Hollingsworth, and sponsored in the Senate by Republican Todd Young (chiefly because it creates huge new opportunities for residential real estate development firms who have been major donors to GOP Congressional campaigns).
So no. There are Democrats who might support YIMBY-inspired upzoning, but unleashing investor-owned rental developers to buy up Bloomington is not Democratic orthodoxy.