Five Ways to Strengthen Local Housing Strategies

Local policies play a role in addressing the growing problem of high housing costs. This guide can help simplify the complex landscape of housing policy.

Policies set by cities, towns, and counties play a crucial role in addressing the growing problem of high housing costs. Local governments can generate resources for the creation and preservation of dedicated affordable housing, establish incentives or requirements for the inclusion of affordable housing units within new developments, and modify zoning policies to make it easier for supply to keep pace with demand.

To help cities, towns, and counties take advantage of these and other tools to develop stronger local housing strategies, the NYU Furman Center and Abt Associates—where I work as director of housing and community initiatives—co-founded the National Community of Practice on Local Housing Policy in 2015. With the support of the Ford Foundation and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, we met regularly over the course of two years with a working group of 14 practitioners and policy experts to develop an approach for guiding local governments. Based on their guidance, we developed LocalHousingSolutions.org, an online guide to local housing policy, which launched in October. Throughout this process, we benefited from the advice and feedback of an advisory council comprised of 40 trade associations, think tanks, and policy organizations knowledgeable about local and state housing policy.

One of the main objectives for the online guide is to provide a framework that simplifies the complex and multifaceted landscape of local housing policy. While developing the site, we identified 82 distinct local housing policies, and 19 separate policy objectives, including goals related to affordability, homelessness, fair housing, housing quality, community development, and displacement. The myriad policy options and objectives is one reason why the development of comprehensive local housing strategies is extremely challenging for local governments.

It’s further complicated by the numerous local agencies and departments that affect the cost and quality of housing, including the housing department, planning department, zoning commission, development authority, public housing agency, and others responsible for permitting, inspecting, and approving taxes. These agencies all have tools at their disposal to either increase or decrease the affordability of housing. To successful address a community’s housing challenges, it’s vital for these agencies to work closely together, in partnership with the city manager, mayor, and city council.

Recognizing that this real-world complexity cannot be wished away, we created a housing policy framework to help local officials and practitioners better understand the numerous policy options available to them. We also included information on the site about how to use data to analyze a community’s needs, how to develop a local housing strategy, and how to approach complicated policy questions and trade-offs.

As local officials and practitioners explore the information on the site and apply it to strengthen their local housing strategies, we’d urge them to consider these five key recommendations:

  1. Every community should have a local housing strategy that includes clear objectives, a robust set of policies for achieving those objectives, and measures for tracking progress over time that is grounded in a thorough understanding of a community’s housing needs and challenges. While a large number of cities, towns, and counties in the U.S. have adopted one or more policies to promote housing affordability, relatively few have developed a clearly articulated local housing strategy. The strategies of larger communities will generally be longer and involve more policies than those of smaller communities, but communities of all sizes could benefit from having one. By developing a formal strategy, cities, towns, and counties will be able to identify gaps in their policy arsenal and track whether they are making progress over time. Despite some overlap, the housing element of a comprehensive plan and the consolidated plan developed to apply for HUD funding are no substitutes for a robust local housing strategy.
  2. Localities should strive to develop comprehensive approaches that reflect the coordinated policies of multiple local agencies. As noted above, there are numerous agencies whose policies affect the affordability of housing, and communities that are not optimizing the policy tools of all of these agencies are likely to fall short of their goals. In many cases, the active involvement of a senior official in the office of the mayor or city manager can be helpful for coordinating the activities of these agencies.
  3. Local housing strategies should balance a community’s resources and the focus of its housing policy attention on a range of housing challenges, rather than a single one. This balance will help to both improve the quality of a community’s strategy and broaden the potential coalition of stakeholders who support the necessary policy changes to implement it. One important way to balance a locality’s housing strategy is to focus on adopting policies in each of the four main categories of policies in our policy framework: creating and preserving dedicated affordable housing units, promoting affordability by reducing barriers to new supply, helping households access and afford private-market homes, and protecting against displacement and poor housing conditions. It’s also important to balance helping families access affordable housing in resource-rich neighborhoods with improving the resources available in low-income communities. Other considerations include balancing rental housing with homeownership and balancing policies that serve families with a range of incomes.
  4. The engagement of a diverse group of community stakeholders will help localities develop more effective strategies that are more likely to be implemented. Engaging stakeholders early in the process of developing or refining a community-wide strategy can help create a shared understanding of the challenges and desired approaches that can pave the way for both greater acceptance of necessary policy changes as well as acceptance of specific projects that fit within the parameters of the strategy.
  5. Local housing strategies should include measurable goals and a process for periodically reporting on goals to ensure accountability. These metrics can help communities track whether and to what extent they are making progress, providing an opportunity to revisit the strategy when the data show a community is not on track to meet its goals.

The creation of a new website will not by itself transform the process of local housing policymaking, but we expect that many cities, towns, and counties will find the housing policy framework and guidance helpful. In the coming years, we look forward to working in partnership with local leaders and practitioners to enhance their local housing strategies and outcomes.

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