Housing is on the Move in the Nation’s Capital

July 16, 2019 | Mike Kingsella
Reading time: 9 min

In recent weeks, a flurry of housing legislation was introduced in both the House and the Senate. You can read our press releases on the Affordable Housing Credit Improvement Act, the Task Force on the Impact of the Affordable Housing Crisis Act, the Neighborhood Homes Investment Act, the YIMBY Act, and President Trump’s Executive Order creating a White House Council to Eliminate Barriers to Affordable Housing Development in the Insights section of Up for Growth’s website.

Prior to these developments, I testified before the House New Democrat Coalition’s Housing Task Force about solutions to the country’s housing affordability crisis. The Task Force is led by Reps. Denny Heck (WA), Katie Hill (CA), and Ben McAdams (UT). It has been exciting to see many of the ideas raised at the hearing so quickly incorporated into legislation and executive action. I look forward to working with the New Democrats, other members of the House and Senate, and the Administration to advance pro-housing policies.

You can read my testimony below, and for a full copy, please click here.

Mike Kingsella
Executive Director, Up for Growth Action
Testimony Prepared for the House New Democrat Coalition
Housing Task Force's Forum on Affordable Housing
June 5, 2019

Thank you. My name is Mike Kingsella, Executive Director of Up for Growth Action. We are a Washington, DC-based 501(c)(4) coalition that advocates for more housing for the communities that need it the most, because we believe that communities should grow for the benefit of every person.

Up for Growth Action and the New Democrat Coalition understand our national housing crisis and share many views on how to solve it. As Congressman Denny Heck says, we’re facing a crisis of a lack of housing supply; not a crisis of a lack of housing demand.

This reality is reflected in the New Democrats’ Missing Millions of Homes report, as well as in Up for Growth National Coalition’s report on Housing Underproduction in the U.S.

Whether the shortage of homes totals 5.5 million or 7.3 million, it is clear that we aren’t building enough housing. And when we don’t build enough housing, the cost of rent and starter homes rise, people are forced to live farther away from work, more cars are on the road causing air quality to decline, the economy can’t reach its full potential, and people can’t pursue new job opportunities.

The causes for the housing shortage and affordability crisis are myriad. But I’m here today to discuss a major factor behind our shortage of homes, exclusionary zoning and other artificial barriers to housing.

Exclusionary zoning refers to municipal zoning codes that allow only for single-family construction or contain onerous building requirements, regardless of community needs or land-owner preference.

Artificial barriers to housing were defined by the Obama administration’s White House Housing Development Toolkit as largely a range of policies that increase costs to deliver housing - including land use restrictions that make buildable land more costly than it inherently is, onerous off-street parking requirements, arbitrary or antiquated preservation regulations, and unnecessarily slow permitting processes as some of the primary roadblocks to housing affordability.

Exclusionary policies have sordid origins. In the 1930s, the federal government created the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (“HOLC”), which produced Residential Security Maps, commonly known as redlining maps. The attitudes and language in HOLC appraisal sheets and Residential Security Maps was overtly racist. Despite an earlier Supreme Court ruling outlawing racial and economic segregation in housing, redlining, by design, relegated African American and Latino citizens to the least-desirable and least-upwardly mobile parts of a city.

Taken together, exclusionary zoning and other artificial barriers to housing constitute systems that perpetuate social inequity. They can and must be addressed at the federal level. But to do that, we recognize that policy makers require more and better information to craft policy that eliminates the most significant barriers.

To that end, Up for Growth National Coalition is developing a national database of artificial barriers to housing in cities throughout the country. This new research will help federal policymakers like you better understand how local housing policies contribute to national affordability issues in aggregate, and ultimately help you design legislation and promulgate rulemaking to encourage local housing policies that support national affordability goals.

So, what can Congress do to increase housing affordability?

To start, improve the programs that already work. One of the most effective ways that the federal government currently spurs affordable housing development is the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit.

A New Democrat – Congresswoman Suzan DelBene – is leading the House charge to reauthorize and expand that the housing credit to enable the construction of over 380,000 additional affordable homes. Up for Growth Action is proud to support the Affordable Housing Credit Improvement Act, which was introduced yesterday.

While critical, increasing funding for affordable housing has limited utility if zoning laws restrict the delivery of needed homes.

Federal policy leaders are beginning to recognize that federal action must be part of the national housing solution. Both leading Democratic candidates for President and current administration officials including HUD Secretary Ben Carson are “ready to take on the NIMBYs,” with plans to combat exclusionary zoning policies.

Certain states and local governments are already tackling this issue, indicating a policy window is opening. Last year, the City of Minneapolis took the extraordinary step of eliminating exclusionary zoning as a part of its comprehensive plan. This year, Oregon House Speaker Tina Kotek introduced legislation that would do the same across her state.

And though it was ultimately unsuccessful this year, California’s SB 50, which would have upzoned areas near transit stops in California’s large cities, dominated the housing conversation in this year’s legislative session – an indication that the state is ready for a conversation about density, even if some members of the legislature and local leadership are not.

Because municipal leaders are by nature more vulnerable to local opposition to housing, state legislation like SB 50 that establish minimum standards for housing are an essential part of the solution. And like the federal government incentivized states across the country to finally increase the drinking age through The National Minimum Drinking Age Act of 1984, the federal government today can catalyze state legislatures across the U.S. to move pro-housing policies.

An effective way for Congress to get involved is to amend Section 5309 to make “land use” criteria quantitative under DOT Programs, requiring that localities have adequate zoning and demonstrate streamlining of project permissions on land within one-half mile of  transit station areas and along transit alignments to ensure adequate housing is built to meet housing needs. I’ve discussed these ideas extensively with Congressman Scott Peters, who is leading efforts in this area.

More generally, we believe Congress and relevant federal agencies should take a place-based approach for eliminating barriers to housing. This approach would maximize investments in the places that are job- and opportunity-rich but housing-poor, and areas with robust existing transportation and community infrastructure – most often the places where exclusionary zoning has prevented the construction of needed housing. It would also enable more housing using less land and ensure the country’s growth comports with important climate change and environmental stewardship goals.

Up for Growth Action is in the process of developing proposals that address these objectives that I hope to share in the coming months.

The primary cause of our housing crisis is largely policy driven. While a frustrating reality, it also means that the housing crisis is not out of our control and is imminently solvable.

I’ll end my testimony with a simple charge. Use your leadership to provide the means and the motivation for states and local governments to move pro-housing policies into law.

I look forward to working with this esteemed group to enact these pro-housing solutions.