Adopt Local Policies in Support of Housing Choice

Dec 2015

It is becoming increasingly important for local communities to include strong local housing policies within their existing comprehensive plans. Such policies must support the preservation and creation of a full range of housing choices. Well planned and livable communities must have a diverse mix of housing types, sizes and prices. Changing consumer preferences and demographic trends ensure that the sustainable prosperous communities of the future will be characterized by “complete” communities that have housing choices connected to transportation options, amenities and quality jobs as well as support healthy lifestyles. Communities that fail to offer a diverse housing mix are unlikely to retain residents when their housing needs change.Minnesota state statute 473.859 requires that all municipalities (cities, counties and townships) within the seven-county metropolitan region must prepare a comprehensive plan. These comprehensive plans are a statement of the municipality’s vision of the future. The plans address questions about how the municipality will grow and develop. The general goal of the plans is to ensure adequate housing, create and maintain infrastructure and services and to protect important natural and historical areas.

The plans are updated every 10 years with the next updates due in 2018. There are two key requirements with respect to housing as guided by the Metropolitan Council:

  1. A land use plan including a housing element containing standards, plans and programs for providing adequate housing opportunities to meet existing and projected local and regional housing needs, such as the use of official controls and land use planning to promote the availability of land for the development of low and moderate income housing; and
  2. An implementation program describing public programs, fiscal devices and other specific actions to be undertaken in stated sequence including official controls to implement the housing element of the land use plan, which will provide sufficient existing and new housing to meet the local unit’s share of the metropolitan area need for low and moderate income housing.

Housing choices allow households to find housing affordable to them in the communities where they want to live. A full range of housing types can help increase resiliency as local governments experience changing demographics and economic conditions. Housing elements are an opportunity to state a local government’s specific policy priorities around housing choice within their community. In addition, when key stakeholders have a clear idea of the overall goals then housing goals are much more likely to be achieved in a timely manner. This implies including multiple perspectives on the table when crafting the municipality’s vision and plan–those of residents, business owners, school officials, public health advocates, etc.

To prepare a plan that contains innovative and flexible housing policies a good deal of evaluation and study are needed. The demographics of an area and the existing conditions are critical to gaining an understanding of what changes are needed. The tools and strategies to accomplish this must be identified through repeated dialogues with stakeholders and policy leaders.

In a demonstration of how this can be accomplished, ULI Minnesota and the Regional Council of Mayors embarked on a Housing Initiative that included the Opportunity City Pilot Program in 2009.

The Opportunity City Program framework is a comprehensive, centralized, sustainable, learning community that provides support and resources to local leaders. It assists them in working toward a full range of housing choices within their community. Funding support from the Family Housing Fund was instrumental in making this program possible and while the program’s deep technical assistance to Cities is no longer available the resources and framework are still applicable to Cities as they consider new housing policies as part of their comprehensive plan update.

How do strong local policies help to expand opportunities for a full range of housing choices?

Municipalities need to proactively plan for a changing region. Merely reacting to changes is no longer fast enough to remain on top of new trends. Unfortunately in many cases, existing local, state and regional tools and strategies do not adequately support mixed use and mixed income projects. Although city leaders and staff may agree on the need for a full range of housing choices, most cities do not have the strong policies, backed by innovative tools and strategies, to make these projects happen in a timely and cost efficient manner. Many times, a city is reacting to a proposal from a developer for a particular site, rather than proactively marketing a vision. Instead a city should have an overall goal that is backed by policies and the tools to implement it.Current land use regulations, may not allow for mixed land use or mixed housing types. Many times this results in a debate about whether to allow exceptions to the regulation rather than about what kind of development makes sense for the city and for a particular area. This issue is a major source of added cost and lost time. In many cases these extra costs result in the elimination of affordable housing components due to spiraling costs.

In addition, even with the development of a comprehensive and sound plan there are still many misunderstandings of the value of providing housing choices and a mix of housing types. Oftentimes there is angry resistance to projects that include a mix of housing types and incomes. Local housing policies should include the following components in order to reduce such problems and expand opportunities within the housing stock:

  • Promote the benefits of a mix of housing types, including support for compact development, to the public’s self-interest by establishing partners to tell the story. These include lower costs, more efficient delivery of public services, increased transportation options, and environmental preservation. In addition, a more diverse community adds enrichment to the daily life as well as enables access to more resources and amenities: from entertainment options and cultural events to food choices.
  • Educate members of the community regarding the value of density prior to responding to a particular proposal. Local policies should support proactive strategies instead of reacting to specific proposals.
  • Broaden public meeting attendance by reaching out and engaging the latent citizen majority as well as young and emerging leaders.

What methods are needed to ensure local housing policies are effective in achieve housing goals?

The Minnesota Housing Tool Box includes many policies that can help local communities achieve a full range of housing choices. Each of the individual housing policies discussed in the tool box has the potential to be of assistance in solving a community’s housing needs. However no one policy by itself is likely to be sufficient to achieve local housing goals. There are many factors that contribute to differences between the housing that is being built in a community and the desires and preferences of those who live and work within that community. The lack of housing affordable to those that work in the community is one manifestation of the housing disconnects that exist within our communities. Different policies are needed in order to address this dilemma by meaningfully expanding the supply of homes affordable to families and individuals with low-moderate incomes. Each policy should be considered in the context of the individual community’s overall housing affordability goals, while at the same time considering housing choice and development patterns. In addition, housing policies are only as good as the local regulatory tools that enable them to be implemented. For example, a policy that supports mixed use and mixed income development without the appropriate land use implementation regulations in place are ineffective. Or alternately supporting additional affordable housing without having the tools to approve and complete specific projects only results in pretty drawings that look nice on office walls but do little to help poor families looking for housing.

A comprehensive housing strategy is an approach used by a growing number of localities to ensure their policies are well-coordinated and well-tailored to meet their objectives. In its broadest form, a comprehensive housing strategy focuses on issues of housing supply, affordability, and quality. The goal of this strategy is the provision of affordable, available and safe housing for families of all income levels. Some communities choose to take a more strategic approach by developing a housing plan to assist a more specific population segment, such as aging residents, working families and young professionals.

Providing methods to update local regulatory tools combined with strong local leadership allows the programs that encourage a mix of housing and creates a prosperous, livable community for everyone.

Examples of effective local policies

Woodbury’s 2008 Housing Implementation Plan used a variety of strategies to create a full range of housing choices.

Maple Grove’s Project Points System provides incentives for developers to build certain percentages of affordable housing at different levels of the Regional Median Income.

Housing Counts Policy Toolbox, Housing Policy, Public Lands & Resources
Who is it for?
Policy Makers

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