What will Biden do for urbanism?
Barring some highly unlikely turn of events, Joe Biden will become president in January. The question for many planners and urban designers: What will the new administration mean for urbanism?
Cities will be facing many challenges in 2021. When the dust settles on the pandemic, we don’t know what kind of shape downtowns and main streets will be in economically and socially. How many storefronts will be closed and businesses gone? Many big cities are experiencing a surge in violent crime in 2020. Is that a long-term trend or a short-term effect of the pandemic?
These important questions aside, Biden has a housing program that offers some indications of where the new administration is heading from an urban planning standpoint.
The program promises major investments in affordable housing. Biden proposes a $100 billion Affordable Housing Fund “to construct and upgrade affordable housing.” Will the affordable housing be built in cities, or suburbs, or rural areas? Probably all of the above. If such a program were adopted, the only certainty is that more resources will be available to include affordable housing in land-use plans.
Furthermore, Biden proposes to make Section 8 housing, the voucher program for public housing, an entitlement. The Biden plans calls for funding Section 8 vouchers for every family that is eligible. Currently, most families that are eligible for Section 8 cannot get vouchers because of limits in funding.
Neither of these programs specifically addresses urbanism—that is to say, are these affordable units or voucher-funded rentals connected to transit? Do they blend in with market-rate housing or will they be concentrated in neighborhoods and developments with predominantly low-income housing? How will these living spaces be designed?
For clues in answering these questions, we have to look at other aspects of the plan that address issues more directly related to urbanism.
Code reform. One paragraph in the plan directly addresses zoning reform, promising that federal investments will be tied to land-use regulatory changes, and the that the secretaries of US DOT and HUD will be involved. “Biden will tie new federal investments in housing to a requirement that states and localities eliminate regulations that reduce the availability of affordable housing and contribute to sprawl. He will direct his Secretaries of Housing and Urban Development and Transportation to identify existing federal grant programs that can be amended by adding zoning reform as a requirement. And, Biden will expand investments in Local Housing Policy Grants to give states and localities the technical assistance and planning support they need to modernize housing regulations.”
Mass transit. The plan promises more funding for mass transit in mid-sized and larger cities. It also mentions micro-mobility. “Biden will aim to provide all Americans in municipalities of more than 100,000 people with quality public transportation by 2030. To that end, he’ll increase flexible federal investments, helping cities and towns to install light rail networks and to improve existing transit and bus lines. He’ll also help them to invest in infrastructure for pedestrians, cyclists, and riders of e-scooters and other micro-mobility vehicles. And, Biden will work to make sure that new, fast-growing areas are designed and built with public transit in mind. Specifically, he will create a new program that gives rapidly expanding communities the resources to build in public transit options from the start.”
Smart growth. The plan connects climate change to land-use patterns, promising a grant program to promote innovation in this area—but at the same time calls for more highway funding. “Biden will empower city, county, regional, and state leaders to explore new, smarter, climate-friendly strategies to help reduce average commute times and build more vibrant main streets. Specifically, Biden will create a competitive grant program to help leaders rethink and redesign regional transportation systems, to get commuters where they are going safer, faster, and more efficiently. At the same time, Biden will boost highway funding by 10% and allocate the new funding to states that embrace smart climate design and pollution reduction, incentivizing them to invest in greenhouse gas reduction. States will also be free to use existing highway funding for alternative transportation options.”
Underserved communities. Biden promises to dedicate “$10 billion over 10 years” for transit projects that serve high-poverty areas with limited transportation options. Also, the plan calls for expanded funding for “mission-driven, community-based financial institutions that invest in building new housing in underserved areas.”
So far, all of these ideas are campaign promises and the details are vague. Yet we can all be certain that change is coming to Washington, and to cities, and urbanists will respond.