a photo of tents beneath a highway overpass in Seattle, WA
In cities like Seattle, widespread housing affordability has fueled a homelessness crisis. Elaine Thompson/AP

Fix the Housing Crisis? It’s Complicated, But Not Insurmountable.

Different U.S. cities have their own versions of the housing affordability problem. It’s time for them to share solutions.

Bozeman, Montana, needs 1,500 housing units, right now. And it’s projected to need over 6,000 by 2023. With unmet need, rapid growth, and an unemployment rate of 2.5 percent, this small Western city with a population of about 50,000 and a median home price of nearly $450,000 faces acute housing challenges.

Just like the many bigger metros that have become famous for their housing crunches, Bozeman will try a relatively simple regulatory tweak to address their housing supply problem: They’ve made a zoning code change that makes accessory dwelling units and duplexes easier to build. The city’s Planning Department worked collaboratively with students from Montana State’s Architecture department in late 2018 to create designs for ADUs that have now been presented to community residents: They’re code compliant, address issues with parking, and fit within the 600 square foot ADU size limit. Tied together with other moves like developing dense, clustered homes with the Trust for Public Lands, Bozeman is creating solutions on housing.

Solutions are needed, because housing is in a state of crisis in America, and not just in booming places like San Francisco and Seattle: Nearly 40 million households, including half of all renters, are now spending more than 30 percent of income on housing. Demand is outstripping supply, with not enough new housing being built and too few existing affordable units preserved. Add in a dollop of local zoning restrictions, a heaping generation’s worth of federal disinvestment in housing, and a splash of NIMBYism, and we have a recipe for coast-to-coast disaster.

The problems and solutions can look very different from city to city, but all cities can learn from one another’s examples, and their leaders need a space to share what works. That was the thinking behind the National League of Cities Housing Taskforce. In January and March of 2019, 18 mayors and city leaders from across the country—big cities and small—came together to talk about affordable housing. The deeper we dived, the more we realized that the crisis is being caused by a complex matrix of factors, and will require an equally nuanced, multi-pronged solution.

We have just released a report, Homeward Bound: The Road to Affordable Housing, which issues a call to action for the federal government, acknowledges the systemic discriminatory housing policies that form today’s reality, and provides best practices for city leaders to help alleviate the housing crisis.

Unfortunately, decisions made by government leaders at all levels have exacerbated this crisis. While there is increasingly strong leadership by mayors and councilmembers today, the local policies of the recent past contributed mightily, from post-World War II suburbanization and housing policies dependent on automobiles. Even more pernicious, the current housing crisis is grounded in the outcomes of policies like redlining and racialized zoning that permanently altered where people of color live and the wealth that they could build. As my colleagues wrote in our NLC report:

Today’s housing crisis is rooted in the bedrock of America’s founding and the seizure of land for development by new settlers. Fast forward to the 1930s: America was building on existing racist deed restrictions with the introduction of redlining, which was the overt practice of restricting the neighborhoods in which homebuyers could get federally-backed home mortgages based on race and ethnicity. National policy sanctioned by the Federal Housing Administration included color-coded lines drawn on maps to delineate areas where financial institutions should or should not invest.

Countering these wrongs is imperative. It means that we must think holistically about housing and geography as policy choices are made now.

A major takeaway from our report is that local leaders need to combine funding and financing streams to support housing goals. In order to meet these goals, it is time to modernize local land use policies, including zoning and permitting, with a focus on rebalancing housing supply and demand.

One example of a local solution worth emulating comes from Washington, D.C., where the median price of a District home has crested $600,000 and continues to rise at a torrid pace, causing concerns for existing residents and those trying to move in. In fiscal year 2017, the city established a Housing Preservation Fund to protect existing multi-family rental housing. An initial outlay of $10 million in local funds will be used to grow the fund to a combined $80 million with private and philanthropic contributions; that money will help eligible borrowers that purchase and maintain occupied multi-family properties with more than five units. Within these properties, half of the units must be affordable to households earning 80 percent or less of the median family income. So far, more than 800 units have been preserved.

But action at the federal level is also crucial. We are beginning to see housing plans proffered by Democratic presidential candidates, with Senator Elizabeth Warren, former Mayor Julián Castro, Senator (and former Mayor) Corey Booker, and Senator Kamala Harris speaking directly to the national scope of housing challenges.

We need the federal government to immediately see the housing crisis for what it is—something that we can collectively solve on behalf of the American people. To do this, we must first and foremost stabilize and stem the loss of public and affordable housing. Then, to enshrine these goals long-term, follow emergency intervention with the passage of a standalone federal housing bill that authorizes 10 years of new funding for pilot programs that advance housing for all.

Land use is local, but federal support can spur innovation and modernization of land-use and planning at both the local and regional levels. And we must fix inequities in housing development and the housing finance system. The federal government needs to support scalable innovation and financing for cities of all sizes.

Lastly, city leaders should identify and engage broadly with local stakeholders and coordinate regionally to develop a plan to provide housing opportunities for all. And with that in mind, we can—and must—support the needs of the homeless, older Americans, and persons with conviction histories through policy interventions.

Housing has long served as the foundation for wealth building in America, but the affordability challenges in recent years have made it harder and harder for so many to reach the American dream. If we’re going to solve this seemingly insurmountable problem and ensure that every American has a place to call home, we’re going to have to work together.

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