It’s Time for Housing Policies to Change
But Balancing the Decision-Making Power is a Delicate Subject

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Minneapolis recently voted to become the first city in the country to eliminate single-family zoning, and to increase density near transit.  Denver and Austin have been implementing new housing trust funds paid for with local taxes. Durham, North Carolina is pursuing plans to create an affordable housing loan fund and proposing an affordable housing bond to support the financing of affordable construction. Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Seattle, New York City, and Jackson, Mississippi, are all experimenting with various forms of “social housing,” like limited-equity cooperatives and community land trusts.

The states of Oregon, California, and New York recently passed sweeping “rent regulation” protections for tenants that limit the rent increases landlords can charge, and New York became the first city to offer a “right to counsel” law, to make sure tenants are represented by a lawyer when facing an eviction proceeding.  Philadelphia, Newark, San Francisco, Berkeley, and Washington, D.C., are working on similar laws.

CityLab, is an organization committed to telling the story of the world’s cities: how they work, the challenges they face, and the solutions they need.  It recently reported on a meeting held by Local Progress, a national network of progressive elected officials from cities and local governments across the country that recently convened to address the housing affordability issues that are infiltrating more and more cities. “It’s a simple idea: Everyone should have a place to live. But we are failing badly at this most basic of goals, in every part of the country,” a Local Progress spokesperson explained to CitiLab. Talking points made by Local Progress support the expansion of city-led alternative models for housing ownership in light of the limits that the private market has in creating housing that is affordable to all, for the long-term. They’re also in favor of more state-led and ultimately federal policies to address the problems. As in higher education and health care, public options can complement what the market provides, they say.

Local Progress points to examples of families being pushed out of the neighborhoods where they’ve rented for years. In cities like Detroit, as many as one in five renters face eviction, as landlords confidently raise the rent on a family however high they wish, because they know they can profit from a new type of renter now willing to pay more to rent there. The group is asking for strong protections against rent hikes and unwarranted evictions so that tenants can stay in their homes.

Almost everyone would agree that the imbalance of supply and demand can only be addressed by building different housing options than those of the past. While Local Progress pats the cities on the back for their actions, The Brookings Institution hold an opposite opinion, saying it’s the local governments that are usually the root of the problems.  Like Local Progress, Brookings also urges state, and national policymakers to take action to reduce barriers to housing supply, essentially usurping local governments that have adopted overly restrictive land use regulations that constrain housing growth and drive up home prices.

But, in a country where private enterprise and property rights are vehemently upheld, some of the social policy proposals and higher government oversight actions already taken may sound radical. At the same time, discussions about affordability and the need to change housing policy have been the subject of debate and action even in the most conservative of cities and states as well. Indeed, the state of Texas, in its last legislative session, voted to limit the local regulation of building materials in new construction, preventing rules that go beyond national standards published within the last three code cycles. For example, the state stepped in to nix the ability by cities to implement policies requiring that all homes be faced with a certain amount of masonry. Existing owners in neighborhoods that held specific architectural restrictions were strongly opposed, saying the change would adversely affect their investment in a particular neighborhood that they chose due to the particular policies it upheld.  Furthermore, they said that the state should stay out of their city’s business.

Here’s one statement made by a Local Progress spokesperson that we can all agree on:  “Growth will be required. We’ll need courage to push past the fear of change, of loss of the familiar, that so often tethers us too strongly to the status quo.”

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