Obama White House Toolkit Tackles Local Barriers to Affordable Housing

Housing affordability is a critical issue in many communities and the development of more units is often hindered by restrictive local regulations.

Through a new housing development toolkit released this week, the White House showcases the innovative work several communities have done to tackle the challenge of modernizing zoning codes, land use regulations, and development approval process to spur the production of affordable housing.

When President Obama took office in 2009, housing prices had dropped approximately 20 percent since 2005, and over 13 million households suddenly had mortgages that were underwater. Nearly eight years later, the housing market has largely recovered and the number of mortgages underwater has been nearly halved, with 7.4 million homeowners still owing more than their home is currently worth.

Coupled with an improved economy and an unemployment rate under five percent, the pain of the recession appears to finally be easing for many Americans. However, as the administration notes, these economic gains in many metropolitan areas are tempered by surging housing prices, which are growing much faster than wages.

The administration points out that housing stability has a direct link to economic opportunity and income inequality is more difficult to solve in regions with high housing costs, as pointed out recently by Matthew Desmond in his book Evicted. Frequently, these high housing costs are artificial constructs by communities that have implemented restrictive regulations, zoning codes, and other barriers to affordable housing development.

In its toolkit, the White House outlines the common barriers communities face, such as well-meaning environmental or historic preservation requirements, land use regulations, zoning codes, parking minimums, residential conversion restrictions, or laws designed to exclude production of multifamily or affordable housing. Though there is no comprehensive measure for these barriers, the administration cites research that suggests these barriers began rising rapidly in 1970 and continues today.

Not every community has adopted or maintained these barriers, and the toolkit outlines strategies employed by cities — like Chicago, Seattle, Sacramento, San Diego, Austin, and Tacoma — and states — like California and Massachusetts — that have had success in solving common housing challenges and fostering a high-opportunity housing market.

From easing parking minimums to land banking to accessory dwelling units, the toolkit offers an array of solutions from communities that have improved their housing markets despite challenging political barriers to reform.

The toolkit complements other work being done by the administration and HUD to address economic inequality through affordable housing and place-based solutions.

At APA's Policy and Advocacy Conference last week, HUD previewed its Prosperity Playbook, a forthcoming online portal that will house a constantly expanding set of case studies that offer communities solutions to a variety of community development and housing challenges. APA is a partner in HUD on the development and maintenance of the Prosperity Playbook.

About the Author

Tess Hembree is policy manager at Advocacy Associates.

Top image: Housing under construction. Photo in the public domain.

September 28, 2016

By Tess Hembree