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Malign Neglect? What Will Urban Policy Look Like Under a Trump Presidency

Ben Carson
Donald Trump's pick for Secretary of Housing and Urban Development.
Photo by istock/Bastiaan Slabbers

As Niels Bohr, or maybe Yogi Berra, said: predicting is difficult, especially when it’s about the future. Perhaps even more so when considering Trump’s stance on urban policy — one of many issues the president-elect has never disclosed his position on, or even shown any particular interest in.

Actually, that might make prediction easier, not harder.

Why? It seems pretty clear that Trump doesn’t have much policy bandwidth; in fact, he may be the least policy-minded person to serve as president since Warren Gamaliel Harding.

What that means, I believe, is that when it comes to issues that don’t engage him on a gut level — and are not red meat to his base — he’s not likely to push any policy ideas of his own. Instead, he’s more likely to leave those issues to the Republicans in Congress, along with whichever right-wing apparatchik or mortgage lender becomes housing and urban development secretary.

That means that there’s not going to be much urban policy, period. The Republican party leadership doesn’t care much about cities, which are full of Democrats, minorities and poor people.

Programs with broad constituencies, like Community Development Block Grants and the HOME Investment Partnerships Program, will probably remain but shrink further; Low-Income Housing Tax Credits may stay under the radar and survive. After all, they’re good business.

Modest Obama initiatives like Promise Zones will disappear, and nothing will replace them. Cities have become used to getting relatively little help from the federal government to address their social and economic problems, and they will soon get even less.

Changes to housing policy are potentially more serious. The big issue is less about affordable housing — though if Congress decides to significantly reduce the number of vouchers in circulation, it could spell disaster for hundreds of thousands of struggling families — but rather with the nation’s mortgage system.

For the last decade, that system has been a makeshift hybrid of public and private actors, held together with the fiscal equivalent of duct tape. Everyone agrees that it needs to be changed. But with major policy differences separating the administration, different factions in Congress, lenders and advocates, nothing was done.

Now, that may change. Congress and the Trump administration could work together to privatize the mortgage industry, deregulate financial markets and declaw the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Those actions could further starve cities of the capital they need, reducing mortgage access for low- and middle-income urban households, and in low-price neighborhoods. A less likely but possible alternative could be a return to the worst excesses of the subprime mortgage scandal.

On the big issues that will affect cities’ futures, we shouldn’t expect much. If you start with the premise that climate change is a hoax, you’re not likely to see much point helping low-lying cities like Miami or Norfolk adapt to something that doesn’t exist.

There is, however, encouraging evidence that cities are already taking action on adaptation — even in red states where the phrase “climate change” cannot be spoken in public. Another positive sign is strong Republican interest in major infrastructure investment: Trump has called for spending $1 trillion on infrastructure over the next 10 years. Unfortunately, Trump believes that money will come from private sources incentivized with “revenue-neutral” tax credits — a strategy that is highly unlikely to succeed. Infrastructure spending may help some cities, but if it favors projects that can draw private financing, a lot more money will end up in fast-growing urban areas like Houston or Denver than in the Midwest or Northeast.

Trump talked a lot about manufacturing jobs during the campaign, which may have swung a lot of rustbelt voters to his side. Certainly, a revival of manufacturing, and thousands of new, well-paying factory jobs, would be a great boon for the cities.

The problem is — as many of the people who voted for him may sooner or later realize – it’s all smoke and mirrors. (Interestingly, a wildly unscientific poll on attn.com has 91 percent saying no to the question “do you think Donald Trump will restore manufacturing jobs?”) Sadly, those jobs are largely gone, for many and complicated reasons. Starting a trade war with China won’t bring them back.

The neglect part is pretty clear. What about the malign part? This is harder to predict, but there are some tea leaves to read. There’s an ominous line buried in the Republican platform that reads, “We expect Congress to assert, by whatever means necessary, its constitutional pre¬≠rogatives regarding the District.” It goes on to say that Congress should pass a law “allowing law-abiding Washingtonians to own and carry firearms,” even though the citizens of the District of Columbia have voted for strict gun controls.

This is not an outlier. Other Republican-controlled statehouses — including those in Wisconsin, Michigan and North Carolina — have sought to impose their preferences on cities and cut back municipal powers.

A good example came from North Carolina this past spring. Buried in the bill that mandated same (biological) sex bathrooms, which got the headlines, the legislature added a zinger with huge policy implications: a law that supersedes any local effort to regulate “wage levels of employees, hours of labor, payment of earned wages, benefits, leave, or well-being of minors in the workforce”. Goodbye to city ordinances setting minimum wage, or mandating parental leave or health benefits.

I suspect we will see more of this sort of thing at the federal level. Since Congress’ ability to directly dictate city ordinances is limited (at least, outside the District of Columbia), these provisions are likely to show up as conditions of federal funding, either at the city or state level. You want federal transportation funds? Legalize concealed carry. You want federal education funds? Require same-biological-sex bathrooms, etc.

History has shown that all the talk about “less government intrusion” and “the best government is closest to the people” quickly goes out the window — one might say is trumped — by any policy agenda that stirs the passions of the Republican base.

It’s likely to be a long four years.


Alan Mallach is a senior fellow at the Center for Community Progress, a US non-profit organization which focuses on urban America. He is the author of the new book “America’s Urban Future: Lessons from North of the Border”.

This post was produced in collaboration with the Island Press Urban Resilience Project, with support from The Kresge Foundation and The JPB Foundation.