The Local Role in Housing

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Local governments don’t control the interest rates on a 30-year fixed rate mortgage nor the regulations that determine who qualifies for a mortgage loan. However, municipal leaders can impact whether or not their community offers a myriad of housing choices to meet the needs of a diverse mix of individuals and families.

Using the power to decide land use, establish codes for building safety and implement certain tax policies, city and town leaders are the single most influential decision makers about the kinds of housing options available within their borders.

Housing defines the community in which people chose to live. But how much choice do potential residents actually have? For example, are safe and modern manufactured homes even allowed as a matter of right in most cities? Zoning rules have their merits, but its is necessary to mandate the minimum size for a garage and the minimum square footage for a residence? Why is mixed-use development  — where commercial and residential share a structure — often not permitted?  Some of these rules cause so much concern that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development maintains the Regulatory Barriers Clearinghouse; a stockpile of state and local rules limiting housing choice. 

If it is a societal goal to ensure descent and affordable housing for all Americans, then localities may need to find new ways to define the unique character of a neighborhood. Moreover, they need to ensure that if the tax code offers an incentive to build a single-family house that there is a similar incentive for building a multi-family house.

Housing choice means serving owner-occupants, potential owners, renters, and those who may need to transition back and forth between owning and renting. The means to achieve housing choice for all is in the hands of the nation’s mayors, city and town councils, and planning directors.