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Want to Have an Impact on Housing Policy? Go Local!

March 27, 2017

Twenty-five years ago, in a law school class on Local Government Law, Professor Gerald Frug asked my classmates and me to select which adjectives best described “federal” and “local” government. In every case, we matched the positive attributes to the federal government and the negative ones to local government. The federal government treated everyone fairly, while local government was often biased.  The federal government was an honest broker, while local government was often corrupt. The federal government emphasized universal values, while local government focused on parochial interests. 

These assumptions about the superiority of federal or national perspectives are so strong and longstanding they are even embedded in our language; consider, for example, the negative connotations associated with the words “parochial” and “provincial.”  Our views have likely also been influenced by the history of civil rights in the U.S., in which the federal government has acted forcefully to counter discrimination at the local and state levels in education, housing, and hiring.  The images called to mind by this struggle – of violence against peaceful civil rights marchers and federal troops protecting African American children as they sought to attend integrated schools – lend powerful weight to this perspective.

So if you’re a twenty-something and want to make a difference in people’s lives, it’s only natural you would gravitate toward the federal government, rather than state or local government. In addition to the presumed benefits of the federal perspective, the federal government also allows you to take advantage of economies of scale.  Why focus on policies affecting hundreds or thousands of people when for the same amount of effort you can influence millions?

The ongoing need for federal enforcement of civil rights laws is clear.  But on many other issues, as we proceeded to learn in our class on Local Government Law, the assumption that federal government is more important than local government is deeply problematic.  One set of arguments for the value of local government focuses on the benefits of actively participating in comparatively small democratic institutions with a direct effect on our lives.  But the argument I have grown to appreciate the most is the one that emphasizes the powerful impact that local decisions have on our ability to achieve key policy outcomes. 

The federal government can prescribe whatever standards it wishes, but at the end of the day, a school is inherently local, with the quality of education dependent on the training and abilities of individual teachers and the effectiveness of local administrators in supporting them.  Inherently local decisions similarly affect the nature and quality of local policing, the availability of parks and recreational opportunities, the patterns of local traffic and traffic congestion, and the nature and effectiveness of public transportation options.

Local Policy Decisions Play a Key Role in Positive Housing Outcomes
Local policy has a particularly critical role to play in the housing arena. Local planning and zoning decisions affect the density at which housing can be built and the complexity, duration, and cost of the land entitlement process, which in turn affect the cost of housing for consumers.  In the cities that most severely restrict the ability of the market to produce new housing units in response to increased demand, rents and home prices rise faster, making housing less affordable for residents.  With rents rising faster than incomes, families have less money to spend on nutritious food, health care and other essential expenses.  Declining housing affordability also makes it difficult for low-income and minority households to access neighborhoods with high performing schools, safe streets and other key amenities.  In some cities, moderate- and middle-income households also struggle to find housing they can afford, leading to a loss of income diversity.

Just as cities and counties can contribute to housing affordability problems, they also have the power to implement important solutions.  Among other things, they can:

  • Increase density in appropriate places and streamline the entitlement process, making it easier for the market to respond to increases in demand with new housing supply.
  • Preserve and expand the number of dedicated affordable housing units through: tax abatements, tax credits, density bonuses, reduced parking requirements and other incentives; inclusionary requirements for new development to include affordable units; and the use of housing trust funds, tax increment financing and other local revenue sources to generate funding for affordable development. 
  • Promote residential stability for renters and homeowners through eviction and foreclosure prevention programs, ordinances requiring landowners to have “good cause” for an eviction; and property tax circuit breakers that protect low-income homeowners from the effects of rising property taxes tied to home price appreciation. 

Best and Brightest Needed to Help Craft Local Housing Policy
To be sure, the federal and state governments also have critical roles to play in housing policy.  Among other things, the federal government provides more than $40 billion in essential funding each year to help support housing and community development programs.  States administer the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit and first-time homebuyer programs.  An affirmation of the importance of the local role in housing policy should not be read as a renunciation of the importance of federal and state policy efforts.  All three levels of government have critical roles to play in solving the nation’s housing challenges.

Given the inherent bias toward federal solutions, however, it’s important to remind ourselves that local policy matters and encourage the best and brightest to focus their attention on local housing policy.  Due to the numerous policy options available and the need to coordinate policies across multiple local agencies, developing comprehensive and effective local housing strategies is a challenging task.  This is one of the many reasons we need talented people to become involved.

So to all of those interested in addressing the nation’s housing challenges: consider focusing on helping local governments to develop stronger and more effective housing strategies! 

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