Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Moving Forward: Building a community of practice to support local housing policy decisions

by Jeffrey Lubell, Center for Housing Policy

This column makes the case for establishing a national community of practice devoted to building knowledge about effective local housing policy. By fostering an ongoing, structured dialogue among local policymakers and practitioners that informs an evolving knowledge base about efficient and effective policy solutions, this community of practice would help speed up the local policy development process and foster better housing policy outcomes with existing funding.

The importance of local housing policy

Many important housing policy decisions get made at the local and state levels, including:

  • Zoning and permitting policies that determine where housing can get built, what form the housing may take, how many units can get built on a given parcel, how difficult it will be to obtain approval for new development, and how long that approval process will take.
  • Local affordable housing policies related to such matters as the use of federal block grant funding for affordable housing; tax increment financing; the use of publicly owned land for affordable housing; inclusionary incentives and requirements; impact fees; etc.
  • State housing policies related to the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit, tax-exempt bonds, fair share housing requirements; housing elements in local comprehensive plans; etc.

This is just the tip of the local and state policy iceberg. There are also planning processes at multiple levels; decisions regarding public housing, housing vouchers and the preservation of privately-owned affordable housing; policies to assist the homeless, older adults, people with AIDS and people with disabilities; predatory lending policies; policies related to the financing of small multifamily properties; energy-efficiency policies; tax abatement policies; housing code enforcement policies; policies to help renters remain stably housed. Etc., etc., etc.

(The balance of this column focuses on housing policy decisions made at the local level. I hope to address state housing policy more specifically in a future column.)

Existing resources on local housing policy

The Center for Housing Policy has developed a number of resources to help local decision-makers learn from the experience of other communities and establish effective local housing policies. Our online guide to local and state housing policy, HousingPolicy.org, covers a broad range of housing policy objectives. A sister site, Foreclosure-Response.org -- a joint venture of the Center, LISC, and the Urban Institute -- focuses specifically on local policies to prevent foreclosures and stabilize affected communities. And most recently, we launched the Housing Research and Advisory Service, a low-cost inquiry service to provide local communities with customized responses to their housing policy queries.

HousingPolicy.org and Foreclosure-Response.org provide links to many other excellent resources that other national organizations have prepared to help local decision-makers make informed housing policy decisions. Other resources are available through conferences and organizations active at the state and regional levels. Despite all of these efforts, however, I believe there is more that needs to be done to support informed and effective decision-making by local housing policymakers.

The need to provide more support to local policymakers

Local housing policy is complex, requiring coordinated decisions by multiple entities within (and sometimes across) jurisdictions. Particularly outside of large urban jurisdictions, local decision-makers often lack access to information about the housing policies that other similar jurisdictions have adopted, and thus end up, to some extent, reinventing the wheel.

The large cuts to the federal HOME program are likely to exacerbate the problem, leading to the loss of knowledgeable local housing program staff and the expertise they have accumulated over the years. The elimination of the Redevelopment Agencies in California will likewise lead to a devastating loss of human capital and talent.

A Community of Practice to Support Local Policymakers

For all of these reasons, I urge the field to establish a national community of practice devoted to building knowledge about effective local housing policy. (An article by William M. Snyder and Xavier de Souza Briggs provides a great overview of how communities of practice work.) This community of practice would go beyond the static sharing of information to foster a dynamic interchange of ideas among local policymakers to speed up the policy development process and strengthen local housing policy outcomes.

This community of practice would have several key features:

  • It would be directed to building knowledge, rather than just sharing information. Lessons learned from practitioner dialogues would constantly be reflected back into an ever-improving knowledge base about promising solutions.
  • It would be ongoing and sustained over time. The sponsors of the community of practice would continually organize dialogues among interested policymakers and practitioners using a variety of media and forums, including conference calls, webinars, in-person meetings and conferences.
  • It would recognize the diversity of experience and context of the participants. Those new to the field will have different needs from those who have been working in the area for 20 years. Those in rural communities will have different questions than those in urban or suburban settings. There is no one-size-fits-all solution, but that does not mean we cannot learn from each other's experience.

This is not a small or inexpensive undertaking, but I believe it is essential to developing more effective local housing policies that expand the availability of affordable housing.

Given the vastness of the challenge, it's natural to want to jump up a level or two and focus on changing federal or state policy. We should certainly consider opportunities to use federal and state policy as levers to encourage better outcomes at the local level. But those levers are not a substitute for providing local decision-makers and their staffs with the tools they need to make effective and informed housing policy decisions.

I'd welcome feedback on how to strengthen support for local housing policy decision-makers.


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Join the conversation by commenting on this post.

"Moving Forward" is a monthly column about ideas for the future of U.S. housing policy by Jeffrey Lubell, Executive Director of the Center for Housing Policy. The column offers perspectives on the government role in housing and on broader housing market trends likely to shape future housing policy.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

I think this is a very important issue and local level decisions about housing and neighborhood policies matters a great deal. I am staff for a regional association of community development organizations in St. Louis, MO called the Community Builders Network of Metro St. Louis. There are associations like this around the country (some are at the state level and some are regional). NACEDA is the national association of these groups. Perhaps there is a way we can utilize this already developed system of "communities of practice" to engage around local housing policy issues. These associations could be good convening platforms for this type of local support around housing and community development policies.

Larry Rosenthal PhD said...

Jeff, what a superb proposal for a national community of practice in this area. Please know that we here at UC Berkeley are extraordinarily interested in participating and helping to galvanize support, both from the practitioner and academic/research perspectives.