I have newfound hope that we will solve the affordable housing crisis in the United States. It’s one of the most challenging problems of our time and many of us are affected by it. I had the opportunity to speak with three individuals who are working every day to make our country better. They each play a critical role in making positive changes happen and our discussion focused around the recent report from the National League of Cities titled: "Homeward Bound: The Road to Affordable Housing.” The report was a major undertaking and it saw the NLC assemble its largest team yet called the National Housing Task Force. They produced an informative, thought-provoking, and practical piece derived from conditions on the ground. It was an aggressive schedule that began in late December of 2018 and was just released in July of 2019. The task force was highly collaborative and they engaged with local government officials around the country from California to Maryland and Texas to Ohio.
A quick look at Homeward Bound
Provided below is a brief summary of Homeward Bound to give you a high-level overview of the report. I highly suggest you read it in full as a summary doesn’t convey the level of effort in creating it. Here’s a single sentence from the report that captures the goal of the Housing Task Force: A safe and stable home is the first step to a safe and stable life. Stable housing is the foundation of our society and is needed for economic mobility, job security, health and well-being. The foreword from Muriel Bowser, the Mayor of Washington, DC and the Chair of NLC’s Housing Task Force, equates housing to infrastructure. That’s not how we typically think of housing, but it makes sense: you also can’t have things like job security and well-being without roads, bridges, and electricity grids. If we develop and pursue solutions to the housing affordability crisis with that in mind, our decisions will be based on the fundamental truth that housing is a right, not a choice.
There are a variety of historical and contemporary factors that have created the situation we find ourselves in today and I’ll mention two of them. First, in the 1930s, redlining was used to restrict federally backed home mortgages to certain neighborhoods based on race and ethnicity. Redlining converted clear racist action into structural racism that has resulted in long-lasting negative impacts. This practice shaped the geography of American cities, towns and villages, and embedded drastic racial bias into both institutional policy and implicit associations by setting the precedent that spaces associated with people of color are risky investments.
Second, a recent challenge that we’ve all heard about is ‘NIMBYism’. This is the result of local governments giving incumbent homeowners priority over new home buyers. I think existing homeowners have valid concerns over change to their neighborhoods, but we can’t continue with the status quo if millions of people are being negatively affected. These kinds of issues can be addressed based on the five national and local housing policy recommendations developed by the Housing Task Force.
The national recommendations set housing policy at the federal level. These include things like passing a federal housing bill that authorizes ten years of new funding for pilot programs that advance housing for all and fixing inequities in the housing development and housing finance system. Recommendations at the local level act as guidance for solution implementation based on local housing conditions. A few examples include establishing local programs by combining funding and financing streams to support housing goals and supporting the needs of distinct sub-populations including the homeless, seniors and persons with conviction histories. Simplifying the complexity of addressing affordable housing provides guidance on conversations around affordable housing.
The most informative and hope-inspiring section of Homeward Bound are the case studies. The case studies feature cities that are taking action and the solutions they’ve implemented to address their local housing problems. In Atlanta, HouseATL is committed to raising $500 million from local private and philanthropic resources, and another $500 million from local public resources. Seattle focused on inclusionary zoning, requiring new multifamily and commercial development to contribute to affordable housing and increase development capacity wherever requirements were imposed. San Antonio launched the ‘Under 1 Roof’ program that replaced failing roofs with energy-efficient “high-reflectance roofs”, resulting in reduced housing costs for families. These cities in action show us we need holistic, integrated housing strategies to improve housing affordability. That’s where the National League of Cities steps in.
National League of Cities empowering local government
The NLC is an organization that represents all of the 19,000 cities, towns, and villages in the United States. They provide education, research, support, and advocacy to help city leaders tackle problems affecting their constituents. The programs under the City Solutions team seek to equip local leaders to create livable and thriving communities. That team is directed by Jim Brooks and he led the effort on Homeward Bound with the Housing Task Force. I asked him about their mission and why it’s so important.
“NLC plays a critical role supporting local governments. We develop strategies and tools to tackle difficult problems like affordable housing. Local officials aren’t experts in housing, but they care about it, and we can help educate them through reports like Homeward Bound.” Cities are grappling with a growing list of challenges and addressing issues like affordable housing requires specific knowledge. Cities may not have the expertise to dive in and figure out what’s needed to fix difficult problems, so reports like Homeward Bound serve as a trusted source of information where mayors and council members can educate themselves and learn from their peers.
With increasing demands on our cities, a growing list of challenges, and limited resources, how can cities be successful in making affordable housing a reality? Jim says there are a variety of options for cities. “They can use technology and other types of innovation to make data-driven decisions. They can also form partnerships with agencies like regional transportation planning boards and learn from others what has worked. Lastly, incentives like density bonuses can be used to encourage developers to build affordable housing." Partnerships help cities move faster by building on the work of others, rather than starting from scratch. Things like incentives and other financial instruments can influence behavior in the private sector and encourage certain activity.
The federal government can also step in to help local governments. For example, the cost of developing and administrating changes to local land-use policies can put quick action out of reach for many. Grants from the federal government can help speed the development and adoption of best practices among local governments. It’s important to note that the tools we have in our toolbox aren’t limited to technological ones. Technology is only a means to an end: it’s the methodology and people behind it that make it useful. Each city has a set of unique conditions in its housing market, so a combination of technological, financial, and organizational solutions must be leveraged to make progress.
Here’s something directly from the report I read to Jim: in order to make real progress in narrowing the gap in access to quality, affordable, and safe housing, local leaders must take on the status quo and make significant structural alterations. I asked him how leaders might make these changes. “We know how to solve these problems using housing programs, technology and public-private partnerships. It’s not from a lack of solutions that affordable housing is a problem, but better awareness and communication will be critical to seeing those solutions through.” He highlighted the bold move by Minneapolis to allow duplexes and triplexes to be built in areas zoned for single-family housing. Housing advocates and city leaders organized walk-and-talk tours in every ward, inviting residents to explore their communities while envisioning a better future.
Change isn’t easy and it requires leaders to step in, communicate a vision, and carry it forward. Jim also mentioned something I didn’t think about before. Interaction between government and citizens isn’t a one-way street. People can pressure government to do what they want, but government can also push back. If change is resisted for too long, the state can step in and force cities to make adjustments. We’re seeing this right now in California where Governor Newsom overruled a housing plan from Southern California leaders with the Department of Housing and Community Development declaring southern cities will have to plan for construction of 1.3 million new homes over the next decade.
Tools to see what others can't
How can cities use technology to effectively analyze data to make affordable housing a reality? Affordable housing happens in a space and place and that’s where Richard Leadbeater comes in. He works as the State Government Industry Manager at Esri and helps the Big Seven think of the problems they are trying to solve in terms of location. Everything government does occurs somewhere, so mapping technology, or GIS, is the best tool set to do this. Although mapping technology has become pervasive in our society, there’s still many organizations who haven’t integrated it into their daily work.
“I help organizations see their operational and policy issues as geography problems. I also help them understand that maps aren't just static documents that display one dimensional data, but a means to provide some analytical output that can improve daily operations." I’ve seen this usefulness first-hand at many local governments. Maps can help engineers find detailed documents within the context of their construction location, the public can submit locations for where a new dog park should be, and crews can find maintenance tasks that are closest to them. Technology evolves rapidly and new uses of maps are being discovered every day. Someone that fundamentally understands current trends and applications can help organizations make their communities better through technology.
Looking at problems through a geographic lens is particularly effective as we’ve reached a turning point with data collection. “It started with crime mapping twenty plus years ago and today we've narrowed the collection down to a personal scale. Data can be collected at a singular point, like an address. We can start asking more detailed questions about the data.” What does this mean for policy makers? It means they have a more accurate and current picture of what’s going on in their communities. Just like cities, neighborhoods within cities are unique and have different needs than one another, and action should be adjusted to maximize the benefit in an area.
Furthermore, it’s not just what you do, but how you do it. Richard said that Open Data is helping facilitate transparency in government. Raw data isn’t always useful though, it needs to be effectively shared and communicated. “Maps and applications provide communities the opportunity to deliver both the right data and the right context to provide a more complete understanding of something.” Esri offers tools like ArcGIS Hub that brings together information products. Maps and applications communicate knowledge while ArcGIS Hub facilitates the access to that knowledge. You can have the best data in the world, but it’s worthless if people can’t understand it or can’t find it. This open approach isn’t just useful in increasing transparency with citizens, but also between different agencies, within agencies, and within the private sector. It’s exactly what helped the City of Charlotte improves its housing market.
Cities taking action
Charlotte established a housing policy in 2011 that provided guidance for housing investments in the city using a static map. Over time, this map lost its effectiveness and city leaders wanted a better approach. A key element in implementing a new policy was an internal tool that calculates site scores for housing projects based on four categories: proximity of development to transit services and various amenities; income diversity as a measure of the unit mix of a proposed development and overall income level of the surrounding community; access to jobs based on commute times, and neighborhood change that factors in change occurring in a community. This score helps Charlotte’s city council make data-driven decisions on whether a proposed development should be allowed to move forward.
Warren Wooten is the Housing Operations Manager at Charlotte and works to manage housing in the city. He played a key role in developing the new approach to Charlotte's housing goals. Warren ensured it would reflect existing policy and deliver value to all stakeholders. “The goal was to get developers to understand what council wants so worthwhile housing projects could be placed on the agenda.” They decided to make an online, map-based tool available to interested companies so developers could quickly determine if their project was appropriate for a neighborhood. No longer would it be the ‘submit-reject-reapply’ approach that would waste the time and resources of all parties involved.
This turned out to be a win-win situation for the developers and city, which can be a rare outcome between government and business. Warren did a live demo of the tool so I could see it in action and it was blazing fast. It allows users to drop in proposed locations with policy relevant variables like unit mix based on area median income. What results is a score that’s created in real time from several layers based on current, geographic data. Remember, maps can be used in operational capacities to improve business processes. In this case, developers can do their own research, make more informed decisions about their business, and reduce the back and forth with the city. In a growing place like Charlotte, these efficiencies really add up.
I asked Warren what the results have been so far: “It’s been well received by the council and developers, but only time will tell. It’s great because we can have a conversation around these projects using a common language”. The language of these conversations are geographic data displayed on a map: a medium that we all understand. He mentioned that the debate on housing won’t stop because people will see data in different ways, but having a common ground to start with can be more productive.
Lastly, I wanted to know if the lessons learned here could be applied to other challenging problems like the opioid epidemic. “There’s an emphasis around open data being used to solve new problems. As people get more connected you will see exciting solutions arise from the local government space.” Charlotte has an open data portal that helped Warren’s team get easy access to the data that powers their housing tool. Capabilities and ‘know-how' built during this project can be applied to other problems the city is facing. This open culture will help enable and power solutions of the future.
All together now
In the process of writing this article I realized that collaboration and sharing is key to the better future we all want. When we work together, we can solve the challenging problems of our time. Jim and the Housing Task Force created a piece of knowledge that empowers decision-makers by providing historical context, practical recommendations, and case studies around affordable housing. Equipped with that knowledge, local leaders can move forward confidently with their plans of action. Richard and Esri help connect the dots by building and encouraging the use of science-based tools that can bring a process out of the darkness and into the light. Maps are a universal language; they can communicate why certain solutions need to be implemented and enable us to monitor the outcomes of past decisions. Warren and the City of Charlotte acted and used science-based tools to make their decision process on housing more effective and transparent. By combining those tools from Esri with the recommendations from the NLC cities like Charlotte can get further down the road to affordable housing than they could alone.
This spirit of collaboration and sharing can result in a better quality of life for people; the case studies in Homeward Bound prove it. That spirit needs to be the foundation of everything we do: if you want to go quickly, you go alone; if you want to go far, you go together. After all, leaving the world and its people in a better place than it was before is what life is all about. I would ask the reader to think deeply about the following question: what can I do to help provide safe and stable housing in my community and who can I work with to make it happen? We have a lot of work to do, but Jim, Richard, Warren and others like them are helping to make a better tomorrow that will be shared by all.