Addressing Housing Solutions in Washington and Beyond

Housing issues took center stage at this year’s APA Policy and Advocacy Conference. Discussions of the nation’s housing crisis and new solutions to address housing affordability were the clear themes of sessions, the focus of advocacy, and at the top of local planning agendas for participants.

Scope of the Housing Crisis

The economic, social, and political scope of the housing crisis was explored in depth by two of the nation’s leading experts: Chris Herbert from Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies and Elizabeth Kneebone of the University of California, Berkeley’s Terner Center for Housing Innovation.

Both painted stark pictures of the growing challenges related to rising costs, production, multifamily development, neighborhood change, funding, and finance.

They highlighted the importance of housing to broader challenges of expanding economic opportunity. Rising costs in the context of stagnant wages create particular problems for low-income people. As Herbert put it, “the rent eats first.”

At the same time, the presentations made clear that housing issues are not limited to the low-income communities. In fact, rising housing-related pressures higher up the income ladder have contributed to new political urgency in many places.

Finding Solutions

With the outline of the housing problem clear, the focus shifted to finding solutions. A series of sessions looked at promising reforms coming from states and local governments. Speakers highlighted the remarkable — and increasing — level of policy and political activity happening on housing in state legislatures and communities. A wide spectrum of housing issues was discussed, from affordability to availability, production to preservation.

Voters this fall will decide on ballot measures that could provide significant new funding for housing. A growing list of states looks primed to consider new housing and planning legislation when sessions convene in 2019. In addition, local communities are debating code and regulatory reforms aimed at boosting housing ranging from reducing parking minimums to allowing more by-right multifamily development.

Speakers also pointed to new attempts to tackle equitable growth, challenges in low-cost markets, and displacement concerns.

Highlighting Successes

Jason Segady, AICP, the planning director of Akron, Ohio, highlighted success in boosting his city’s downtown housing through an innovative tax abatement strategy. There was agreement that no single reform would be a “silver bullet” but that a range of new policy and planning tools would be needed.

Among the local solutions discussed was reforming rules related to accessory dwelling units (ADUs). Rodney Harrell, AARP’s director of livability thought leadership, noted the role of ADUs in promoting not only additional density and options but also multigenerational housing.

A new partnership between APA and AARP focusing on ADUs was announced at the conference. This work builds on previous efforts by the two organizations on promoting model ADU codes. The new collaboration will be an important part of APA’s Planning Home initiative and aims to understand the state of current practice and lead efforts for advancing critical reforms.

FISCAL Solutions

Addressing the diverse range of housing challenges will require a range of policy solutions, including supportive fiscal policy.

A panel discussion on the impact of 2017’s federal tax overhaul legislation made clear the connection between tax policy and housing. Panelists pointed to projected impacts from tax reform on existing tools, like the Low Income Housing Tax Credit, and the broader landscape of municipal finance.

According to Peter Lawrence from tax and housing finance firm Novogradac, the tax law is estimated to reduce the future supply of affordable rental housing by approximately 235,000 homes over 10 years. The experts pointed to some legislative solutions to bolster LITHC, such as the Affordable Housing Credit Improvement Act (H.R. 1661 / S. 548).

Participants were urged to focus on a new program created in tax reform. The new Opportunity Zone tax incentive has enormous potential to drive investment in targeted communities. Yet, uncertainty remains about how the program will work and how communities can effectively plan for new investments. While zone designations have been made, regulations have not been finalized. The Treasury Department is expected to propose rules this fall.

APA members participating in the Delegate Assembly held during the conference also focused on identifying policy and planning solutions. Delegates continued work on updating a new policy guide on housing as well as a framework for advancing social equity policies. Both topics, as well as an update on surface transportation, are expected to be completed at APA's 2019 National Planning Conference.

Planners' Day on the Hill

Making Washington a better partner with planning and communities in addressing housing was at the center of the 2018 Planners’ Day on Capitol Hill.

A record number of planners brought a housing message to Congress. In meetings with 80 Senate offices and covering more than 90 House districts, advocates pushed for a combination of immediate support for proven programs in the current appropriations process and a broader push to put critical housing concerns at the top of the congressional agenda.

This includes expanding funding for HOME and Community Development Block Grants, moving forward with a proposal congressional task force on housing, and advancing new ideas for improving federal housing policy.

The interest, advocacy, and energy around housing issues will continue. Emphasis on the issue framed the Policy and Advocacy Conference but is also poised to influence this fall’s elections and policy debates into 2019.

From policy guides to Planning Home, APA will help define and advance the housing solutions that the nation needs.

Top image: The Daniel Burnham Forum on Big Ideas at the conference had a housing theme. From left, Anthony Flint, Lincoln Institute of Land Policy; Julie Kim, Stanford University Global Projects Center; Gerald Korngold, New York Law School; and Michael D. Alexander, AICP, Atlanta Regional Commission. APA photo by Pixelme Studio.


About the Author
Jason Jordan is APA's director of policy.

October 9, 2018

By Jason Jordan