To Make Progress on Housing, Break Down Those Walls!

High-cost cities and counties face an array of serious housing challenges, including (among others): shortages of affordable housing, gentrification and displacement, homelessness and persistent segregation. While I don’t know of a silver bullet for solving these problems, I would encourage localities wishing to make faster progress in these areas to focus on breaking down the walls between different agencies and different policy domains to achieve a greater degree of active collaboration. 

Consider the numerous local government agencies whose actions affect the cost, quality and location of housing in a particular city. These include, among others: the city housing department, the city planning department, the local public housing authority, the board or commission responsible for setting zoning policy, and the city departments responsible for tax policy, issuing building permits, and code enforcement. In cities with fixed guideway transit (like a metro), the policies of the public transit department can shape housing affordability. Some cities also have a local housing finance agency. 

In a perfect world, all of these agencies would work closely together as part of a cohesive, collaborative strategy to attain common goals. In the real world, different agencies often have different priorities and may or may not work closely together. A lack of close collaboration across agencies can arise from personality clashes, inadequate staffing levels, bureaucratic inertia, or simply a lack of understanding of the importance of working together. Regardless of the reason, the result is the same: Many cities end up tackling their housing challenges with one hand tied behind their back – accessing only a portion of the policy tools at their disposal to improve housing affordability, quality, and stability.

Agency walls also inhibit collaboration across policy domains on issues of common concern. Think of the potential for using housing interventions to improve health, education, or environmental outcomes. There are promising examples of collaboration in each of these areas, but these are encouraging exceptions, rather than the rule.

Active Collaboration Can Help Address Housing Policy Challenges

Of course, in urging localities to break down the agency walls that inhibit collaboration, I am not speaking literally. Simply combining multiple agencies within a single superstructure would not necessarily solve the problem if the agencies do not start incorporating collaboration into their day-to-day work. Rather, I am urging agencies to develop active collaborations in which they work closely together to achieve shared goals, understanding that their success is interdependent.

There’s no simple recipe for achieving this type of active collaboration. But the following approaches could help localities make progress toward this objective:

  1. Make interagency collaboration on a comprehensive housing strategy a mayoral priority.  Perhaps not surprisingly, the places that are furthest along in developing a comprehensive approach to improving housing affordability – cities like New York, Boston, and San Francisco – are among the highest-cost U.S. cities. By necessity, they’ve had to reach for all of the tools in the toolbox. In many of these cities, housing has also become a political issue, increasing the attention the issue receives from the mayor and other top officials. Mayors are generally well positioned to ensure active collaboration across the agencies they manage.

    Unfortunately, the political will needed to support major legislative action and increased funding for affordable housing at the local level often lags far behind the need for these steps. As a result, the comprehensive approach comes far too late in the cycle of housing cost growth. Why wait?  By developing a collaborative approach earlier in the cycle, cities can get ahead of the problem and put policies in place while land prices are still manageable, reducing the long-term costs of addressing the problem. Even if the political will to commit additional funds is lacking, cities can still make progress through low- and no-cost steps related to zoning, permitting, and the use of publicly owned land, among others. Cities should not need a high degree of political will to support a mayoral call for all of the relevant agencies to join together in developing a comprehensive and collaborative plan to improve housing affordability.

  2. Set goals and demand accountability. Setting ambitious numeric goals that can be achieved only through interagency collaboration can be powerful motivator for collaboration. For example, a city could set a goal of increasing by 5,000 the number of very low-income households benefitting from affordable housing programs in the city or increasing to 2,000 the number of housing units annually added to the housing stock. Publicly declaring a goal provides a mark to aim for and regular public reporting on progress ensures a level of accountability that can help encourage maximum collaboration to achieve the goal.

  3. Identify promising models of collaboration. In many cases, our public servants are working hard to do their jobs and do them well. But they simply have not identified the need to work actively with other agencies to help achieve the locality’s housing goals. By identifying and describing promising models of collaboration, we can help agency staff understand the benefits of active collaborations and encourage them to build these practices into their day-to-day work.

  4. Work to align mandates from higher levels of government. States and the federal government should consider the potential for aligning mandates and reporting requirements to facilitate local collaboration across policy domains. Many local agencies are focused on achieving the performance goals identified by the state or federal agency that funds them. If the state or federal goals do not line up, the local agencies may find it difficult to work together. By aligning the performance goals so that both local agencies get credit for strong outcomes that promote shared objectives, state and federal agencies can help facilitate active collaboration.

Critics will argue that these changes will have only a limited effect, and that more funding is needed to expand the available of affordable housing. I have little doubt that additional funding would be useful and is desirable. But regardless of the level of available funding, localities need to ensure they are actively deploying the tools available to all of the agencies whose actions have an effect on housing costs, quality and stability.
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