Background

The purpose of HousingPolicy.org is to identify promising strategies that states and localities can adopt to expand the availability of homes affordable to teachers, firefighters, nurses and other families who live or work in their communities. In general, this site focuses on state and local policies for expanding the supply or otherwise lowering the costs of producing homes. Some policies also seek to enhance families’ buying power or more efficiently recycle government funds.

Click on the links below to learn more about the decisions made in developing HousingPolicy.org:

Why focus on state and local housing policies?

What housing challenges are addressed on HousingPolicy.org?

How were the policies included on HousingPolicy.org selected?

The following section is excerpted from Increasing the Availability of Affordable Homes: An Analysis of High-Impact State and Local Solutions [PDF]. Written by the Center for Housing Policy’s Executive Director Jeffrey Lubell, this publication and the companion Housing Solutions Handbook [PDF] were released by the Center and our partner, Homes for Working Families, in 2007 and provide the framework on which HousingPolicy.org is based.

Why focus on state and local housing policies?

There are six main reasons we focus on state and local (rather than federal) housing policies:

1. Housing needs vary locally. Housing conditions, needs and challenges vary significantly from place to place, as do the fiscal and institutional resources available to meet these needs. This local variation is one key reason why it is important for states and localities to conduct a thorough assessment of their specific housing challenges and develop their own housing strategies.

2. Limitations to federal housing policy. Federal funding is critical for helping states and localities meet their needs for affordable homes. But these funds are not sufficient to fully meet communities’ needs and often come with significant strings attached. By raising their own funds, states and localities can generate a more flexible stream of funds that can complement federal funds and fill in the gaps.

Among these federal “strings” are the maximum income eligibility limits of federal housing programs. While the limits vary from program to program, in general, most federal housing assistance for renters goes to families with incomes below 60 percent of the area median income (AMI) and most assistance for homeowners and homebuyers goes to families with incomes below 80 percent of AMI. At the national level, these eligibility limits may well be an efficient way to target federal assistance to households with the most severe housing needs. But there are many communities in which families with incomes above these thresholds also have substantial housing needs. State and local programs are well-suited to addressing those needs.
State and local action is also needed to address the overall shortfall in federal housing assistance for those who qualify for it.

 

3. Opportunity for progress at state and local levels. The last federal housing act was passed in 1998, and the last major new housing program (the Home Investment Partnerships Program) was enacted in 1990. While the federal government has been treading water, states and localities increasingly have become active in adapting federal policies to local circumstances, and enacting state and local housing policies that pick up where the federal government has left off. This increase in activity, combined with substantial interest on the part of state and local leaders in making progress in addressing their jurisdictions’ housing challenges, confirms that there are tremendous opportunities for making progress at the state and local levels that deserve further exploration and support.

4. Local nature of key policies. Some housing solutions only can be implemented effectively at the state and, particularly, local levels. For example, reforms to the regulatory environment to overcome obstacles to development – such as changes in local zoning policies to permit smaller lots and higher densities, or expedited permitting processes to cuts costs associated with development delays – require local action. Since states have the power to exercise general oversight for local land-use policies, there may be options at the state level to influence local practice, but there is comparatively little the federal government can do directly. [1]

 

5. Local responsibility. In general, there is a component of the housing affordability problem that relates to the basic fact that many families have incomes that are too low to afford the costs to construct and maintain a home. While the severity varies from place to place, this problem is fairly widespread across all cities and states. A second component of the housing affordability problem is more local, however. This component largely reflects constraints on the market’s ability to produce new homes (or preserve existing homes) to meet increased demand, leading to increases in land prices, which drive up the prices of homes – often quite substantially. Because the regulatory environments established by state and/or local governments play a large role in establishing these constraints, one can argue that these same units of government should take the lead in determining how best to address the housing affordability challenges these constraints create.

6. Devolution. A more proactive role for states and localities is consistent with the overall devolution in housing policy that has taken place over the past 30 years. While the federal government continues to be the largest funder of subsidies for affordable homes, housing policy is increasingly being set at the state and local levels. In contrast to earlier decades, during which the federal government exerted greater direct control over housing and community development funding decisions, today, three of the largest sources of federal funding for the construction of new affordable rental homes – the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit, the Home Investment Partnerships Program and the Community Development Block Grant – are all allocated by state and/or local governments.

This devolution of control over federal funding for affordable homes has been accompanied by a sharp decrease in federal commitments for additional project-based rental subsidies that are provided directly by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to private owners, the partial devolution to state and local housing authorities of decision-making in the public housing and

Section 8 housing voucher programs (along with project-based rental subsidies, the largest deeply subsidized federal rental assistance programs), and an increase in the number and sophistication of state and local programs that use non-federal resources to help their constituents access affordable homes.

Given the magnitude of the nation’s housing problems, state and local governments cannot fully solve these problems by themselves. But, state and local governments can be strong partners with the federal government in meeting their constituents’ needs for affordable homes. This partnership requires both continued and expanded federal housing assistance and housing strategies at the state and local levels that are innovative, proactive and comprehensive.

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What housing challenges are addressed on HousingPolicy.org?

The tools included in HousingPolicy.org have been selected for their potential to help communities expand the availability of homes affordable to moderate-income working families – teachers, firefighters, nurses, secretaries and others. Using these tools, communities can help meet the needs of families with substantial housing cost burdens, families living in overcrowded or substandard homes, and families who cannot afford to live near their workplaces.

Nationwide, some 5.2 million working families had critical housing needs in 2005 – an increase of 73 percent since 1997. For purposes of this calculation, working families are defined as families with earnings equal to at least full-time minimum wage work but less than 120 percent of AMI, and a critical housing need is defined as paying more than half of one’s income for housing or living in a severely substandard home. [2] Millions of additional working families have moderate housing cost burdens or can only afford to live far from their places of work, forcing them to endure long commutes and spend much of their housing cost savings on transportation.

Some families facing housing challenges – including working families in lower-paying jobs – have incomes so low that they would not be able to afford a home even in relatively low-cost markets. [3] To comfortably afford a home in virtually any housing market, these families require ongoing subsidies such as those provided by the federal government through its various rental assistance programs. [4] Unfortunately, the supply of these subsidies falls far short of the need – a strong argument for continued and expanded federal funding for these programs.

While the needs of this group are great, a comprehensive approach to meeting them would require both a substantial expansion of the nation’s ongoing rental assistance programs as well as other interventions, such as stronger schools, improved workforce development policies, etc., that go well beyond the realm of housing policy. This is an important and challenging subject that merits separate treatment in its own analysis. Accordingly, while we acknowledge these families’ substantial housing needs and support efforts at all levels of government to address them, the tools discussed on HousingPolicy.org are aimed at families with incomes above this threshold – working families with moderate incomes who nevertheless cannot afford the cost of market-rate homes near, or with good transit access to, their places of employment, with a particular emphasis on those who are not well served by current federal housing programs. [5]

Figure 1 illustrates the general scope of the housing cost challenges that are the focus of this site.

 

As families’ incomes increase (the horizontal axis), the amount they can afford to pay for a home (the vertical axis) goes up. Some working families (shaded gray) have incomes that are too low to afford basic operating (for rental housing) or construction (for homeownership) costs, even in relatively low-cost markets. The income needed to afford these minimal costs is represented on the figure by the letter A. Other families (shaded with horizontal bars) have incomes that are sufficient to afford the costs of market-rate homes; the income needed to afford market-rate homes is represented on the figure by the letter B. This site provides strategies aimed at the middle group (shaded black), which falls between these two extremes – working families with moderate incomes who cannot afford the costs of market-rate homes in their desired communities.
The housing needs of this middle group are quite diverse, with some families needing relatively modest amounts of assistance and others needing considerable assistance. Moreover, the income levels that define this group vary from community to community. For this reason, HousingPolicy.org emphasizes flexible solutions that can be adapted by states and localities to meet their specific needs.

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How were the policies included on HousingPolicy.org selected?

Five main criteria have been used to evaluate and select strategies for inclusion on this site:

1. Ease of Financing/Cost-Effectiveness. Preference has been given to policies that require minimal commitment of additional state or city funds, unless those funds are supported by a new revenue source or leverage significant federal funds that would not otherwise be available. Among other things, a focus on this criterion has elevated the importance of policies that extend the duration of affordability periods and more effectively recycle existing subsidies to help more families.

2. Magnitude of Potential Impact. While the wide variation in the types of policy options considered makes it extremely difficult to develop an apples-to-apples comparison of the likely magnitude of these policies, in general, we have chosen policies that would, if adopted, have the potential to help a significant number of families in the applicable jurisdiction.

3. Replicability. While not all policies will be appropriate for or capable of implementation in all jurisdictions, in general, this site focuses on policies that could be implemented across large numbers of jurisdictions without bumping up against significant legal constraints or limitations of federal funding.

4. Flexibility. Preference has been given to policies that preserve significant flexibility for local implementation, especially regarding the income levels of qualifying families.

5. Ease of Implementation. Preference has been given to policies that are easier to implement.

Given the great variation in the nature of the different policies considered and the general lack of systematic data on their use and outcomes, these ratings are inherently subjective. Over time, however, the Center hopes to collect more systematic and uniform data that will allow more objective assessments.

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[1] The federal government could provide incentives for state and local governments to make the necessary changes, but the policy changes would still need to be adopted at the state or local level.

[2] The Housing Landscape for America’s Working Families. [PDF] 2007. By Maya Brennan and Barbara Lipman. Washington, D.C.: Center for Housing Policy. These are the most recent data available. Updated data will be available in 2009.

[3] Further research is needed to clarify precisely the income levels of this tier, but a good working assumption is that it includes renters with incomes below 30 percent of the area median (on a national basis, roughly the poverty line) and homeowners or homebuyers with incomes below 40 or 50 percent of the area median.

[4] The principal federal rental assistance programs providing ongoing, deep subsidies for extremely-low and very-low income families are: Public Housing, Housing Choice Vouchers, Project-Based Section 8, Section 202 Supportive Housing for the Elderly and Section 811 Supportive Housing for People with Disabilities.

[5] With some exceptions, most federal rental assistance is provided to families with incomes below 60 percent of AMI, and most federal assistance for homeowners is targeted to families with incomes below 80 percent of the area median.

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