1. Governance
January 20, 2021updated 09 Jun 2022 10:31am

A city leaders’ guide to Joe Biden’s policy agenda

From public transportation to affordable housing to infrastructure, the new US president has outlined a wide range of initiatives that will profoundly affect how cities recover from the pandemic – and beyond.

By Jake Blumgart

The White House during Joe Biden's inauguration.

The new occupant of the White House has a lot planned to help struggling US cities. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Donald Trump’s presidency was marked by four years of aggressively anti-urban public policy.

Funds were pumped into rural highway programmes, while public transit was de-emphasized as a priority for the Department of Transportation. Myriad fair-housing rules instituted by Barack Obama’s administration were nullified. Immigrant communities that have been rejuvenating US urban areas were persecuted, while inflows of new foreign-born residents were restricted (although the effect was sharpest among refugees). Even tax policy was weaponised to punish parts of the country that vote more heavily Democratic, which also (relatedly) are more heavily urbanised.

By contrast, Joe Biden’s agenda is much more amenable to the needs of municipal leaders. The president’s platform wasn’t pitched as explicitly pro-urban, but it is rife with regulatory and legislative priorities that will profoundly affect how cities are governed. There are so many relevant items, in fact, that it will be hard to follow them all – especially as the US is racked by civil violence, another impeachment and an intensifying pandemic.

City Monitor is making an effort to keep track of the promises Biden made during the presidential campaign, the priorities that have been outlined during the transition and the concepts laid out in early stimulus proposals. No doubt there are areas that should be included that we missed, so please let us know if your favourite prospective policy shift isn’t mentioned. This list will be updated.

Biden’s transportation policy agenda

Transportation is one of those policy areas that doesn’t get a ton of attention in national politics in the US beyond some desultory remarks about the sorry state of the nation’s bridges.

It should. In everyday life, travelling to and from work or play eats up a lot of our time. Before Covid-19, the average American spent almost an hour a day commuting, and transit advocates have long argued that the federal government should invest more in making these trips safer, more relaxing and environmentally sustainable.

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During the pandemic, many Americans have spent far less time commuting, which has created a whole new set of challenges. Mass transit has suffered mightily, as workers sensibly want to avoid potentially crowded indoor spaces (to be clear, trains and buses haven’t been shown to be at the centre of any outbreaks yet). That means fare box revenues have plummeted at the same time that struggling state and local governments find themselves in no position to help.

An adequate public transportation rescue package

The US government acted quickly in March to provide support for struggling transit agencies, but as the pandemic continued, those agencies began presenting apocalyptic scenarios of a future without more aid. The late-December stimulus package delivered $14bn, enough to stave off immediate doom, but before Democrats won the two Senate races in Georgia, it seemed unlikely that more would be coming. And more is definitely going to be needed.

Biden’s first big legislative gambit is a $1.9trn stimulus bill, which includes $20bn more for transit. Combined with the money from the December act, that’s more than transit advocates were asking for in the autumn. City leaders should watch these negotiations closely to see if their systems will get an amount necessary to do more than just stave off disaster but plan for a better future. (The Biden administration might also provide room for reform of the massively overblown costs of US rail transit construction projects, or at least those built underground or elevated, which run far beyond those in other wealthy nations.)

a highway clover leaf

The Highway Trust Fund could be made, at long last, to refill itself. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

Highway repairs and new construction

Biden’s fiscal relief effort does not highlight highway spending, making it an unusual US federal policy initiative in that it privileges public transportation over driving. However, in one of the least-transit-oriented wealthy countries on Earth, the needs of the car cannot be ignored. Biden’s campaign platform promises $50bn for highway repair and construction funding. Soon after the election, one of his advisers told a conference of state-level transportation officials that a good way to start spending quickly would be to keep existing federal funding formulas the same. Currently, the formula massively favours roadway projects, while transit gets about a sixth of the funding. This continuity proposal was quickly denounced by many public transportation advocates, making this a forthcoming tussle between Democratic-oriented interest groups to watch.

The Highway Trust Fund

The main pot of federal money that goes to public transit and, mostly, roadway projects comes from levies on fuel that have not increased since 1993. These funds go into the Highway Trust Fund, which is perennially in need of congressional topping-up, in part because cars are much more fuel-efficient than they were 30 years ago. To fix the structural problems with the fund, the fuel taxes will either have to be sharply raised or a new fee system could be put in place based on miles travelled.

Notably, that’s a course incoming Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg endorsed during his presidential bid. Such systems are being tested in several western states already. Another reform that could be made at the same time would be to change the proportion of each dollar that goes to highways (80%) versus public transportation (20% in theory, although it’s actually less). That could be a step towards achieving Biden’s campaign promise of providing “every American city with 100,000 or more residents with high-quality, zero-emissions public transportation options”.

Highway removal funding

At the end of last year, a bill co-sponsored by a quarter of the US Senate (including the new majority leader, Chuck Schumer) was introduced and included a $10bn line item that’s been getting attention in urban-policy circles. It would create a pilot programme to help cities tear down highways that have long been implicated in the destruction of communities of colour. The programme is known to activists as Highways to Boulevards, and it earmarks money specifically for neighbourhood engagement, community planning and feasibility studies. This type of funding is almost never included in federal transportation grants and has the potential to be a real game-changer.

Passenger rail reform

The president known as “Amtrak Joe” didn’t take his preferred mode of transportation to the inauguration due to the threat of right-wing violence, but rail fans still have high hopes for his tenure. After years of Republican leadership that was openly hostile to rail, Biden promised big things for the Amtrak passenger train service. His proposals include expanding the popular Northeast Corridor line to the south and speeding up trains on the route as well as fulfilling long-promised high-speed-rail projects in California. The challenges are not few, especially the astronomical construction costs mentioned earlier, but the possibilities look better than they did before the Georgia elections.

Biden’s housing policy agenda

Issues of housing affordability and availability have been gaining increasing salience in US policy circles since the Great Recession, aided by an explosion of accessible and popular books on the subject.

In many ways, the pandemic has underlined the problem, exposing the cruelties of the low-income-housing market at the same time that home sale prices have soared amid dwindling inventory. As a result of these accumulated pressures, the incoming Biden administration has far grander housing policy goals than any White House in the 21st century.

The rent emergency

Covid-19 highlighted another crisis that’s been stalking the US for far too long. Eviction is a real danger for a large swath of the US population as housing costs rise while lower-income wages stagnate. Many Americans are a missed paycheck away from losing the roof over their heads, and there are few protections in place to ensure they get a fair deal in rent court. Over the course of 2020, a patchwork of eviction moratoriums and rental assistance programmes protected tenants from losing their homes when everyone was being counselled to stay indoors. These were short-term measures that kept expiring, and soon will again. That’s why Biden’s stimulus plan includes $30bn for rent and utility assistance, which would ensure that renters don’t end this nightmarish experience with unpayable debts hanging over their heads. The president’s plan also includes an eviction moratorium that would last through the end of September. Advocates are calling for Biden to enact an eviction moratorium by executive order on his first day in office to extend that limited protection quickly until Congress can pass a more robust moratorium.

Meaningful help could be in store for low-income renters in the US. (Photo by Eric Baradat/AFP via Getty Images)

Rental vouchers

Housing choice vouchers, colloquially known as Section 8 vouchers, are one of the principal ways the US provides rental aid. It allows those who meet the income threshold to pay only a portion of their rent, while the voucher covers the rest. But unlike other social assistance programmes such as food stamps or Medicaid, housing vouchers are not open to all who are eligible. Instead, the funding is capped, so only about a fifth of those who could get them actually do. For years, prominent housing experts have been calling for the federal government to open the programme to everyone who needs it, which could functionally forestall much of the eviction crisis in normal times. Biden’s platform calls for fulfilling this demand.

If rental vouchers are going to become a more prominent part of the housing safety net, they should work better than they do. It’s currently legal for landlords in much of the US to refuse to rent to voucher holders. (Scroll through apartment rental offerings on Craigslist and you’ll find that “no voucher” is a common refrain.) Many individual jurisdictions, usually liberal cities, ban this kind of “source-of-income discrimination”, but a federal ban would not leave it up to the scruples of a locality. Another way to ensure access to low-income renters would be to target a voucher’s value to a zip code instead of basing it on costs across an entire metropolitan area. Such a tweak would make vouchers worth more in costlier areas and less in cheaper areas, which would keep landlords in those neighbourhoods from charging voucher holders more than their units are worth.

Building more subsidised, social public housing

Making rental vouchers available to all who qualify for them would be a quick means to address the housing crisis. But there is still an appetite for building more affordable housing with deeper subsidies than what is provided by vouchers (which require families to pay up to 30% of their income on rent). Biden’s housing platform includes a $100bn Affordable Housing Fund, which would help public housing authorities rebuild their badly divested housing stock, as well as a $10bn boost to the Low Income Housing Tax Credit (the chief way the US funds affordable-housing construction) and Community Development Block Grants (which have been declining in value for decades). On the left, there is interest in repealing the Faircloth Amendment, which essentially bans the construction of new government-owned housing. While it’s unlikely new public housing is in the offing, there could be an expansion of some of the controversial (and hideously complex) market-oriented programmes that have been used to shore up the deteriorating stock of mid-century public housing complexes.

Right to counsel

Renters in eviction court almost never have a lawyer, and their landlords almost always do. This fundamental power imbalance exists because the US guarantees legal representation only to those facing criminal charges, and evictions are civil cases. In recent years, some municipalities have been expanding legal access for those who can’t afford a lawyer in rent court, and Biden’s platform is committed to rolling out such a guarantee on the national level.

Zoning reform

In much of the US, apartments are banned by local fiat. Towns and cities have immense power to wield almost total control over land use in their jurisdictions, which, among other things, essentially allows upper-income areas to keep more affordable-housing options out. These Byzantine laws also make market-rate housing of all kinds more difficult and expensive to build, fuelling out-of-control costs in many of the nation’s fastest-growing job centres like the San Francisco Bay Area and metropolitan Washington, DC. There has been bipartisan interest in bills that would encourage localities to ease their restrictive zoning and building code regimes, like the Build More Housing Near Transit Act and the Yes in My Backyard Act. Congressional action could also be used to bolster regulatory changes at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which would make it easier to deny federal funding for infrastructure like highways, mass transit or community development to those who don’t allow multifamily dwellings to be built in their towns. Even the most stubborn municipalities would likely blanch at losing road funding or water and sewer funds from the Environmental Protection Agency.

The Biden infrastructure plan

Trump promised investment and long-term planning in infrastructure as a centrepiece of his agenda but never put forward a credible proposal. And there are myriad, much-needed investments to be made. Even leaving aside transportation, everything from broadband to sewer networks need upgrades and expansion beyond the scope of cash-strapped local governments.

Such investments could be good for the government, businesses and residents. For the past several decades, the US has appeared allergic to much serious non-military public spending and has severely neglected many of its needs. Biden sees a chance to rectify those failures, perhaps with some bipartisan areas of agreement.

The lead poisoning crisis in Flint, Michigan came about due to a combination of ageing infrastructure and austerity politics. (Photo by Bill Pugliano/Getty Images)

Drinking water and sewers

The mass lead poisoning of Flint, Michigan was a result of austerity politics. It was also a result of aged water infrastructure. In the older regions of the Midwest and Northeast, water networks date back to the early to mid-20th century (if not earlier) when lead piping was required by law in some states. The costs of updating those systems are expansive. Shortly after the Flint crisis, estimates ranged from $1trn to $4.8trn. The staggering costs of this much-needed maintenance is partly the result of the federal government’s move away from subsidising local infrastructure projects starting in the 1980s.

School buildings

Biden’s advisers have told education policy associations that school repair will be a part of his planned infrastructure bill. There’s a lot to be done. Many US classrooms in older buildings lack air conditioning or have faulty heating. Asbestos and lead dangers are common. Biden’s platform specifically mentions the Rebuild America’s Schools Act, a bill that’s been circulating in the House but never gained traction. Now it seems it will, with an emphasis on ensuring the health of children and on climate resilience.

Broader education-related funding

In the short term, getting students back into school buildings will be a priority. The Trump administration did next to nothing to address the massive education crisis facing US families during the pandemic, which has seen children in every state forced to try to learn from home. The new stimulus proposal includes $175bn to help schools adapt to Covid, with better ventilation systems and strict testing regimens ($130bn would go to primary education and $25bn to higher education). With education layoffs making up the bulk of local government staffing reductions, further funding will also be needed to replenish staff ranks. Biden’s platform also calls for tripling Title I funding, which would boost stagnating public teacher salaries.

Broadband access

The nightmarish experience of the pandemic has exposed serious cracks in the US’s internet infrastructure. While office workers in large cities and wealthy suburbs have strong internet access and easily transitioned to working from home, many rural areas and lower-income communities were not so lucky. Communications experts expect rural broadband to be a big push under Biden, while an internet subsidy for low-income Americans and those whose livelihoods have been harmed by Covid could be on the agenda too.

Smart cities

The overall concept of smart cities has suffered a few setbacks in recent years, especially after Sidewalk Labs pulled out of Toronto. But the Biden administration is offering a $1bn competitive-grant programme to municipalities to prepare for a future with new modes of automated transportation and an abundance of electric micromobility options.

Innovation hubs

Biden has promised a $300bn investment in research and development, with the goal of distributing it through what Bruce Katz calls “50 newly created innovation hubs”. A big part of the goal appears to be levelling up regions that haven’t enjoyed the boom seen by California’s big cities or New York and Boston. City leaders beyond the most successful core of the new economy should keep an eye on this.

Sustainable and equitable recovery

There are myriad policy areas that city leaders need to keep an eye on that fall outside the scope of any one federal agency or congressional committee. These are all areas to watch as politicians and policymakers aim to marry their economic recovery plans with parallel goals related to tackling the climate crisis as well as skyrocketing inequality.

Joe Biden speaking

President Joe Biden’s agenda has a lot in store for US cities. (Photo by Sean Rayford/Getty Images)

Opportunity zones

This Trump-era programme is meant to steer capital to divested areas using generous tax breaks, which have proved to be so tempting that investors are lining up to cash in. The Urban Institute has found that the programme is not actually generating much-needed community investment and that its guidelines and oversight are far too lax. Critics say investors are getting tax breaks for risk-free projects of dubious worth to society. Don’t expect Biden to scrap the Opportunity Zone concept entirely – instead look for him to tighten regulations and crack down on abuses.

Local and state deductions

When the GOP enacted its massive tax cuts in 2017, one of its elements was a little poison pill for regions that tend to vote for Democrats: the elimination of a deduction that allowed for state and local taxes to be written off on the federal side, which is a bigger deal in areas that have more robust public sectors. Powerful Democrats like New York’s Schumer will want to see it reversed.

New visa categories for immigrants

Pretty much all US cities lose more domestic-born residents than they gain each year. That means immigrants are essential for the future of urban economies and neighbourhoods, especially outside wealthier enclaves. In stark contrast to his predecessor, Biden has promised to help cities attract more immigrants through a visa programme designed to entice these populations to struggling urban areas.

Upgrading and weatherising buildings

The built environment is an underappreciated accelerant to climate change. Many structures are grievously energy-inefficient, and the glass towers that have been popping up all over the place are especially bad actors in this regard. Biden’s platform promises action on this problem by weatherising four million commercial buildings and two million homes over his first four years.

Police reform

Last year saw a historic and overdue reckoning over systemic racism in US policing, and Biden has positioned himself as a leader who has influence with both law enforcement and civil rights groups. While he’s stated plainly that he’s not in favour of “defunding” police, possible legislative reforms include a chokehold ban and a nationwide police misconduct registry, while the Department of Justice could reinvest in investigations of violent departments and tie reformist conditions to federal grant money.

Automatic stabilisers for local aid

During every recession, state and local tax revenues plunge and austerity results because they have balanced-budget amendments (of varying degrees of flexibility). Then Congress dithers over how much help to send, causing delay and unnecessary damage to state capacity and the national economy. Some policy experts argue that there should be automatic stabilisers that kick in and start sending checks to lower levels of government when a recession takes hold. Senator Ron Wyden, soon to be chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, supports the idea for cash assistance for households, too.

Neighbourhood reinvestment initiatives

In the wake of the Great Recession, a variety of programmes were implemented to aid neighbourhoods suffering from foreclosure and disinvestment. Among them was the Neighborhood Stabilization Program, which provided funds to local governments to obtain and redevelop foreclosed or otherwise blighted properties. Several bursts of funding were injected into it during the Obama administration’s stimulus effort and in the Dodd-Frank financial reform law. Senator Dianne Feinstein is believed to want to reinvigorate the programme this congressional session, although some critics say it was inefficient and created too little new housing. There’s also the Neighborhood Homes Investment Act, a bipartisan tax credit introduced in 2020 that sought to incentivise the rehabilitation of 500,000 homes that currently cannot be developed because the costs would exceed the current value of the dwellings.

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