February 1, 2001 - From the February, 2001 issue

UCLA Panel Targets Lack Of Political Will & Public Misconceptions As Root Of Housing Affordability Crisis

We're constantly bombarded by proclamations that the private sector must include an affordable component in their developments. Yet, how do we encourage that kind of development when it increases cost and decreases revenue. Even a left-leaning Democrat can understand that equation won't encourage widespread involvement. UCLA Extension's recent Land Use Law and Planning Conference spoke to that issue in a panel entitled The Affordability Mandate: Are the Updated Housing Elements Meeting the Challenge? Moderator Neal Richman, Ph.D. focused the collective talents of Tom Gilmore, Jan Breidenbach, Michael Ruane and Julie Bornstein in fleshing out the major constraints and opportunities of our current framework, concluding with the question: Are these mechanisms effective in dealing with this affordability problem?

What do you each think are the real constraints to promoting affordable housing? And what are the real opportunities?

Julie Bornstein
California Department of Housing and Community Development

The misconception that housing-particularly affordable housing-is not a desired use for urban areas creates enormous opposition among elected officials and community groups.

However, that opposition can be an opportunity. We can use that attitude, turn it around and transform it into support for affordable housing. But we need to change our vocabulary. Don't talk about "affordable housing," talk about "workforce housing." If you approach an average person and ask if they want affordable housing in their neighborhood they will undoubtedly say, ‘No.' But if you say to them, ‘Do you want teachers, paramedics, policemen, and retail clerks to be able to live in your neighborhood,' all of a sudden those attitudes change.

Michael Ruane
Children and Families Commission of Orange County

The biggest constraint is technical capacity. Housing requires people that have planning, business and in some cases law backgrounds to effectively navigate through the housing process. That breadth of knowledge is simply not being fit cohesively into the planning curriculum.

We also need to be able to refer to successful case studies. One community testifying that affordable and/or rehabilitated housing works is more important than anything we as practitioners can devise or suggest.

And lastly, we need to work within the current urban fabric. Stripmalls can be excellent opportunities to coordinate the work of the private sector and local government. Our second and third ring suburbs are increasingly at risk and stripmalls are where we have the ability to create high-density nodes of housing supported by retail and mass transit.

Jan Breidenbach
Southern California Association of Nonprofit Housing

I would echo what has been said above about coalition building and political will and add one last thing-the State/local fiscal relationship. I'm reminded of something Peter Schrag said in his book Paradise Lost, "The results of the fiscalization of land use is that we developed an entire population of local officials that don't know the connection between a tax and a service." That's the kind of mismatch that we have to deal with throughout government, particularly in the housing market.

Tom Gilmore
Gilmore Associates

For me, it's mostly about incentivizing the private sector. The incentives to the private sector right now don't make affordable housing particularly sexy for the average developer. And those developers hold the key to an awful lot of housing units that could be built in the next 10 years.

The other problem is-don't give incentives with one hand and take them away with the other. The state will give a developer enormous incentives to build housing, but it will also give you a series of regulations that will increase your cost higher than the value of those very subsidies. That fundamental disconnect is very difficult for a developer trying to make a profit. And there should be no fear of profit. If the goal is housing we have to be able to set up a framework so that profit driven developers can make one. That will be key to increasing housing stock.

What are your favorite tools or strategies in order to promote housing preservation and development? What are the ones that you think are the most promising?

Julie Bornstein

I'd like to underscore and put an exclamation point next to the topic eluded to above-coalition building. I can't tell you how important the support of the business and academic communities were in obtaining last year's housing augmentation.

First the school superintendents came to Sacramento, not to tell legislators how important housing was, but because they couldn't hire faculty. Housing had become too expensive for collegiate professors to afford and our best teachers were going to other states.

Next, the business community came forward and said, ‘We've got a prosperous town, but our housing prices have climbed so high that we can't hire police officers, fire fighters and municipal workers to live nearby.'

These two instances helped convince people in Sacramento that increasing our housing stock relies on showing people that the problem is greater than merely housing, it links to the continuing economic prosperity of the region and state and it translates into excellent education and greater quality of life.

Michael Ruane

All projects are opportunities to galvanize private sector interest. But, the key is to explain that affordable housing is a resource, not a blight. It's important to put a face on what you're trying to do.

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Another key is political will. If you're in a hearing room and there are 200 people in opposition of an affordable housing project with only a local government planner and a couple members of the project team willing to support the proposal, it's not too difficult to figure out who'll win. Think about the issues that public officials are faced with and help them. If you're dealing with neighborhood opposition, get the best people to explain the issues to the community. If you don't and the neighborhood reads about the project in the paper, 6 times out of 10 the project's never going to get built.

Lastly, design is critical. Don't alienate the architects, ask them to come up with something great, a true community amenity. Bring the architects on board, build a broad team of experts and help create coalitions.

Jan Breidenbach

Los Angeles had a task force that met all last year-the Affordable Housing Crisis Task Force. We looked at the City and came up with about 40 recommendations. One of them was that the City of Los Angeles, like other major cities throughout the country, needs to have a locally generated source of financing for housing.

So what we've created is a campaign for a trust called "Housing L.A." It's a coalition that's gained probably the broadest support of any housing campaign throughout the country. We have support from the business community, from religious leaders, from the environmental community, and from the tenant groups. It's really an amazing coalition. The campaign is working for a local source of revenue, hopefully to be in place by next year.

Tom Gilmore

Planning and zoning issues will be key in the next couple years. People need to be able to build affordable housing "as-of-right" and not spend two years getting entitlements.

Additionally, it would be nice if the phrase "affordable housing" were better defined. Part of the housing crisis that we're dealing with is a crisis of vocabulary. People believe that the word "affordable" means "low-income." We need to be clear on what affordable is; what low income is; and on what working-housing is. It's very important that we don't politicize this crisis to the point that we create something greater than the actual problem.

We know that planning for housing development is mandated by the federal government through the consolidated planning process and we know at the state level we have needs assessments and down through housing elements and their incorporation into the general plan. The question is: Are these vehicles adequate for promoting new housing and preserving old housing? And if not what are the limitations to moving policy to implementation, its one thing to set aside land for development, its another to actually set land to be developed.

Julie Bornstein

The housing element process is a very painful process. And we're trying to do a better job at the state level to communicate why these goals are absolutely essential to increasing housing production throughout the state.

But at the same time, we also need to emphasize local government's responsibility for land use decisions. So, you're going to see more state programs requiring a compliant housing element as an entrance ticket for funding. We're hoping that's an incentive to increase compliance at the local level. We need their participation and full buy-in if this process is to succeed.

Michael Ruane

While I understand the need for Housing Elements and the importance of the General Plan, we need to recognize that they're still limited resources.

Government's role-simply stated-should be to facilitate and provide incentives. So we have to start looking at broader based regulatory incentives, not just financial incentives. We may have to provide a way where areas surrounding arterial highways, stripmalls and infill sites could be streamlined through the approval process in an attempt to encourage development. That's going to require the Housing Element constituency to focus on more than merely the techniques and programs a municipality currently has-which may be critically important-but those that will continue after the Housing Element is completed and certified.

Lastly, no one would design the permit system we have today, ever. We need to recognize this and urge for meaningful reform of the permit process to cut down on its repetitive nature. Any strides in the development of affordable housing will have to include that.

Tom Gilmore

One of the fundamental problems is that affordable housing is seen as a social issue and as such the housing and planning discussions come from the side of the left-leaning democrats. And although I have many great Republican friends, most of them could care less about anything but market rate housing.

If we are to succeed in building more affordable housing, we're going to have to talk the talk of both sides of the political spectrum. We're not going to be able to make good affordable housing a simple social issue-it has to be driven by an economic model as well.

We're going to have to get the business community on board and eliminate the perceived issue that if you build a commercial project you're going to be penalized to pay for additional housing. It's antithetical to what business people want to see. We need to bring the private sector to the table, not just to mollify them, but to incentivize and get them excited about building housing.

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