Leaders discuss expanding housing choice at Policy Forum 2015

housingtrackAttendees at the housing choices track at the Local Leaders Council’s Policy Forum 2015.

In June, local leaders from across the country came together for the Local Leaders Council Policy Forum, a full-day summit in Washington, DC on healthy neighborhoods, expanding housing choices, and downtown revitalization. We’ve written previously about the Forum’s discussions of downtown revitalization and walkable design and economic development. This post takes a closer look at the Forum’s discussions around expanding housing choices.

“Housing choice, jobs, and the workforce” was the first session in the housing choices track, and its three panelists examined practical strategies to build affordable housing in regions across the United States.

Stockton Williams, Executive Director of the Terwilliger Center for Housing at the Urban Land Institute, emphasized that the U.S. housing market is drastically changing. Home prices have been rising steadily since 2011 but average household incomes are stagnant, and the number of first-time homebuyers is at an all time low. This has pushed America’s homeownership rate to a 20-year low. As rental housing takes up an increasing share of the market, rent costs are also increasing.

Polly Donaldson, Director of the DC Department of Housing and Community Development (DCDHCD), explained that job opportunities and quality of life are attracting new residents—particularly Millennials—to Washington, DC. This trend has created new demand for housing in an already high-cost housing market, and Donaldson discussed DCDHCD’s work to serve residents at all income levels. She also emphasized the agency’s work to coordinate across programs and funding sources to make their work as effective as possible. She also emphasized the importance of using public dollars to leverage private funding, and to provide gap financing when necessary to get projects to the finish line.

Council Member Lisa Bender of Minneapolis, MN concluded the session. She discussed Minneapolis’s efforts to create a more affordable city by reducing regulatory barriers, creating subsidized units, and focusing on minimum wage and worker’s rights. She noted that cities should look at wages alongside the cost of housing.

The “Strategies in affordable rental choice” session focused on ways for local leaders to increase the amount of affordable rental options in their communities. The presenters—Ethan Handelman, Vice President of Policy and Advocacy for the National Housing Conference; Doug Bibby, President of the National Multifamily Housing Council; and Gwen Wright, Planning Director for Montgomery County, MD—discussed why cities should care whether an average worker can afford a home, why suburban areas must shift their thinking to more transit-oriented development and mixed-use zoning, and what affordable housing development looks like from the point of view of real estate developers.

Finally, the “Stand-out programs in affordable housing” session highlighted some of the most noteworthy affordable housing programs in the country. The moderator Patrick Wojahn, a Councilmember from College Park, MD, opened the session by posing the question, “How can we make high quality neighborhoods affordable for everyone?”

“I think we can all agree that the affordable housing crisis is not just about housing,” said Chris Kizzie, Director of Enterprise Community Partners. He noted that it is also about economic security, household stability, health and safety, education, and more. He discussed the importance of shifting from a focus on outputs (i.e., units created) to a focus on outcomes (i.e., reduced blight).

Danilo Pelletiere, an economist in the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Office of Policy Development and Research, walked participants through the agency’s new Small Area Fair Market Rents (FMRs) tool. Used to determine payment standard amounts for the Housing Choice Voucher program, FMRs are normally set for a metropolitan area. Small Area FMRs, however, are determined at the zip code level. This makes more high opportunity areas accessible, and voucher holders can move to more areas, generally at no net cost.

Finally, Arlington County, VA Housing Director David Cristeal walked participants through Arlington’s experiences in creating and maintaining affordable housing. He identified density as a key resource at the disposal of local leaders. He described the affordable housing requirement that is in the County’s zoning code. As a result of the requirement, the County has built 261 affordable units since 2005 and added $71 million to the County’s affordable housing trust fund. This has been able to support several large developments, as well as continue to generate more funding. “We can do the analysis, the research, we can go to best practices…and we can come up with all these great things, but once it gets into the political arena, this is where we really need guts,” he concluded.

Visit the Forum archives for the full audio recording of these sessions and other resources from Policy Forum 2015.

Alicia Orosco, Michael Russell, and Jeri Mintzer contributed to this article.

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