When NLC launched our Task Force on Housing last year, we envisioned not only addressing the national housing crisis, thereby ensuring everyone had a physical structure in which to live, but also uncovering how to make these places home for the many thousands of Americans that are without one.
This week, we had our first task force convening, and spoke with mayors, city councilmembers and experts who are on the ground, working tirelessly to address these issues. It was an eye-opening meeting, and we touched on an array of topics, challenges and possible solutions. There were several themes that were especially resonant.
Below are five of the lessons we learned from the event:
- It’s not (just) about the money: Or, more aptly, there are many things cities can do that don’t cost money. One of the major recommendations that came up time and time again during the meeting — and that became one of the five task force priorities — was addressing policy barriers around land use. Up-zoning and reducing the number of hurdles to expanding use of community land trusts are all effective ways that cities can promote housing equity and affordability.
- Take a holistic view of housing: One of the five chosen priorities was regional and holistic planning. Over the course of the meeting, it became clear that it would be impossible to address housing needs without thinking about tangential issues like job growth, health outcomes and mobility. It makes sense: When we choose a place to live, we aren’t just thinking about the physical structure;we’re also considering how far it is from our jobs, whether the commute to work is reasonable with the available transit options and how living there will impact our health (is it close to grocery stores? A park?). Mass transit, job availability, broadband and local amenities are all an integral part of any holistic housing policy plan.
- Government shutdowns ravage HUD and, by extension, the people who depend on it: The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and local housing agencies need funding and access to data, both of which are unavailable when the government shuts down. From December 22, when the partial federal government shutdown began, through January 21, nearly 360,000 people in 125,000 households across the country were at risk because their housing assistance had been delayed, according to an NLC analysis of U.S. HUD data. That included almost 6,000 households in participating cities.
- Local demographic profiles will shift over the next 30-50 years: These shifts matter because they’ll affect demand. For instance, a younger population typically translates into a decreased a desire for home ownership, and the need for more multi-family buildings. Meanwhile, seniors will typically gravitate towards smaller dwellings with more aging-friendly amenities. Cities that don’t take this forward-thinking approach risk a future of unsold homes or not having an insufficient housing supply.
- No “solution” will be one-size-fits-all: We heard from local leaders across the country, from cities big and small, and it became clear that yes, the housing crisis is national in scale, but it’s very localized. For some cities, strategies like up-zoning will make the biggest difference. For others, the greatest hurdle is infrastructure, and ensuring that housing serves the needs of residents. Still other cities would benefit tremendously from more federal aid. Ultimately, with strong local leaders at the helm, we will solve this problem someday — and each of these leaders will play different roles, choosing the priorities that’ll best serve their individual communities.
About the Author: Karen Freeman-Wilson is the mayor of Gary, Indiana, and president of the National League of Cities (NLC). Follow Mayor Freeman-Wilson on Twitter at @karenaboutgary.