White House Housing Toolkit a good start

Have outdated and onerous zoning ordinances and environmental protections stifled housing development and local economies? A new federal report says they have, contributing to issues such as income inequality, gentrification, strained safety nets, commute lengths, racial segregation and homelessness.

The past few days have been nearly overwhelming. We survived (and at least partially mitigated) another historic flood, did our best to absorb this election season’s first presidential debate, and remain in mourning for the latest young life claimed by senseless gun violence. It’s little wonder a new housing report didn’t spawn big, local headlines.

(Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
(Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

Yet this White House produced “toolkit” offers a road map not only for the housing-strapped California coast, but for Midwestern cities like Iowa City and Cedar Rapids as they consider updates to local development and housing ordinances. In short, the toolkit explains how restrictive zoning and planning policies stymie housing supply, raise housing costs and drag down the larger economy. It also serves as a gateway to the $300 million for Local Housing Policy Grants that’s included in President Barack Obama’s proposed HUD budget.

“We need to break down the rules that stand in the way of building new housing,” the 23-page report declared.

Specifically, the toolkit addresses “laws plainly designed to exclude multifamily or affordable housing.”

With the power and influence of the Department of Housing and Urban Development mostly tapped, the White House is pressing the following policy prescriptions for state and local governments:

• Establish as-of-right development, which allows projects to move forward once zoning requirements are met without other additional and often lengthy review. (This isn’t yet a common burden in Iowa.)

• Tax vacant land or put it into use through land banking or similar incentives.

• Speed up the permitting process. When such efficiencies were adopted in Austin, Texas, more than 4,500 affordable housing units were developed during a 15-year period.

• End off-street parking requirements that subsidize driving and pass car costs to renters and buyers.

• Offer tax incentives and abatements for affordable or transit-oriented development.

• Adopt inclusionary zoning.

• Allow accessory dwelling units, such as “mother-in-law quarters” or “granny flats.”

• Enact high-density and multifamily zoning with bonuses for density.

If the Local Housing Policy Grant funding is approved by Congress, HUD would offer monetary incentives for municipalities to adopt these recommendations.

Even with that $300 million lure, it’s difficult to imagine homeowner voting blocks and anti-growth advocates setting their pitchforks aside. Land-use policy has become so restricted because of those who acknowledge need, but fight against development in their own backyards.

Locals may be willing to come together to battle a pending and tangible natural disaster, but haven’t yet expanded their concept of common good to fighting self-afflicted ailments.

This column by Lynda Waddington originally appeared in The Gazette on October 1, 2016. Photo credit: Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette