What talk of ‘abolishing the suburbs’ is really about

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
·Senior Editor
·6 min read
In this article:
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

“The 360” shows you diverse perspectives on the day’s top stories and debates.

What’s happening

President Trump has made repeated overtures to suburban voters over the past month, mostly in the form of social media posts saying that Joe Biden wants to “abolish the suburbs” and poses a threat to the “Suburban Lifestyle Dream.”

Suburbs are not something that can be formally abolished through legislation, of course. Trump’s attacks are inspired by a Obama-era rule that sought to decrease racial segregation in housing. It required local governments to consider eliminating zoning laws that create barriers to fair housing or risk losing federal grant money. Despite Trump’s recent criticism of the rule, it remained in place until late July.

Most American suburbs have restrictive zoning laws that make it illegal to build anything other than single-family homes. Biden proposes amending some of these laws — which he calls exclusionary zoning — to boost the development of multi-family units and decrease the cost of housing overall. Trump opposes this plan, claiming that an increase in low-income housing would bring crime, change the character of the suburbs and lower property values.

Trump’s focus on suburban voters makes strategic sense. About half of the U.S. population lives in areas considered to be suburbs. With big cities leaning heavily Democratic and rural areas largely supporting Republicans, suburbs are the areas where most major elections are decided. Trump’s 5-point advantage with suburban voters was a critical part of his win over Hillary Clinton in 2016. But polling suggests Biden holds a significant lead this cycle, especially with suburban women.

Why there’s debate

On the surface it may seem odd for the president to make a debate over the nuances of zoning laws a central element of his reelection pitch. But housing policy has been a heated issue through much of modern American history, largely because of its role in perpetuating racial segregation.

The creation of the suburbs is inextricably linked to racism, historians say. In the 1940s and 1950s, the federal government created programs that made home ownership more affordable and allowed more people to move out of big cities. But these policies were explicitly designed to keep the suburbs white. After the Supreme Court declared segregation illegal, local governments established zoning laws that were race-neutral on the surface but served to make homeownership inaccessible to minorities. These laws are seen as a major cause of the massive wealth gap between white and Black Americans.

The president’s critics say his claims that Biden’s policies would cause inner-city crime to spread to the suburbs are rooted in the same racially coded rhetoric that has been used to scare white suburbanites to vote against zoning reform for decades. Though Trump’s statements don’t explicitly mention race, phrases like “low-income housing” have long had a strong racial connotation, they argue.

Political observers are divided on whether the strategy will bring suburban voters back to Trump. Some argue it could compel some white homeowners to deprioritize social issues by making them feel like they have to choose between social justice and preserving their communities. Others say the tactic could backfire because it is based on an outdated idea of what life in the suburbs is really like.

What’s next

So far, Biden has not made his differences with Trump on housing policy a significant part of his campaign. He will likely have to address the president’s accusations directly if the issue is raised during the upcoming presidential debates, which are scheduled to start Sept. 29.


The tactic may push swing voters into Biden’s camp

“Republicans are letting Trump be Trump, and he seems determined to try to win by mobilizing his base with a culture-war campaign. What few seem to remember, however, is that Trump also won independent voters in 2016 by a slight majority, but he trails with them this time.” — David Davenport, Washington Examiner

Housing has historically been an effective proxy for racially divisive topics

“The three-word phrase that raises more alarm in headlines than any other … is ‘low-income housing.’” — Public housing advocate Alexander Polikoff to Houston Chronicle

White suburbanites may put fear of affordable housing ahead of racial justice

“[Activists’] main fear is that the white homeowners supporting Black Lives Matter will abandon the movement once it begins to make material demands on their neighborhoods — just as many white liberals abandoned [Martin Luther] King in the ’60s.” — Noah Y. Kim, Boston Globe

The suburbs are much more diverse than they were in the past

“So much about the suburbs has changed, from an influx of minorities who brought their Democratic Party preferences with them, to the relative rarity of women who only stay at home with their kids instead of also holding down a job outside the home and volunteering for quality-of-life causes. The days of the suburbs as diversity deserts are long gone.” — Lawrence C. Levy, CNN

Trump is being unfairly accused of racism

“Trump is talking to suburban homeowners of all ethnicities. If you buy a house in a neighborhood with quarter-acre zoning, you don’t want a high-density housing complex built at the end of the street.” — Betsy McCaughey, New York Post

Housing policy is a low-priority issue for suburban voters right now

“Trump’s suburban pitch is off-key in an election dominated by the coronavirus. … Trump’s handling of the virus and the broader recession are more important to voters than the specifics of housing policy.” — David Byler, Washington Post

Zoning laws have always had a strong racial component in the U.S.

“What Trump calls the “Suburban Lifestyle Dream” didn’t just happen; it was created by government policies. The great suburban housing boom that followed World War II was made possible by huge federal subsidies. … But these subsidies were only available to white people. In fact, they were only available in all-white communities.” — Paul Krugman, New York Times

Politicizing the issue could push local governments to change housing laws on their own

“The biggest question going forward may be less whether Trump demagoguery convinces suburbanites to vote for him than whether it convinces blue-state suburbanites that the land use status quo Trump is defending genuinely reflects his values rather than theirs. … A lot of good could be accomplished if blue states decide that's a reason to embrace diversity and change practical land use policy in theory and rhetoric.” — Matthew Yglesias, Vox

Biden’s policies would fundamentally change America’s suburbs

“Joe Biden and the Democrats want to abolish America’s suburbs. Biden and his party have embraced yet another dream of the radical Left: a federal takeover, transformation, and de facto urbanization of America’s suburbs.” — Stanley Kurtz, National Review

Is there a topic you’d like to see covered in “The 360”? Send your suggestions to the360@yahoonews.com.

Read more “360”s

Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Getty Images

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting